MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Army National Guard's new chief of staff is accustomed to taking the lead.
In her previous assignments, she was Wisconsin's first female brigade commander. She was the first female commander of Wisconsin's 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment, and the state's first non-medical female colonel. Now she is the state's first female chief of staff. But not only has Col. Joane Mathews succeeded in a military structure once dominated by men, she overcame humble beginnings on a Wisconsin Indian reservation en route to prominence in the National Guard.
Her Indian name, Gi we di no kwe, literally translates to "bucking the wind" — something Mathews has done throughout her military career, both literally as a helicopter pilot, and figuratively as a leader.
But Mathews — who now lives in Sun Prairie, Wis. — faced challenges every step of the way on her ascent from childhood to her perch as the chief of staff. Her father, a full-blooded Native American, was born and raised in a village where they spoke nothing but the native language.
Mathews grew up in a deep Native American tradition on the Ojibwe Indian Reservation in Lac Du Flambeau, Wis., where she and her cousins and siblings spent their weekends singing and dancing around a drum in the middle of her family's living room. But her mother, though half Native American herself, was also half white. As a result, Mathews ended up with a lighter complexion and blonde curly hair.
"When I was growing up, I didn't look native," Mathews recalled. "Our public school was majority Indian kids, and they all knew I was native, but I had friends who were not native.
"And so then I was either … kids can be very mean at that age," she said after a pause. "If I didn't look native, they would tease me or want to fight me. So I was kind of in between."
Because of her appearance, Mathews struggled to find her place among the Native children with whom she shared a common heritage, but she struggled in the same way among whites. Not only did she have to learn to take care of herself, but she also learned the value of treating others as equals, regardless of their appearance.
"I learned a lot going through that," she said.
"In the military you're working with all kinds of people from all different backgrounds, so I've learned just to treat everyone as equals," Mathews said. "And I do that with rank as well. Even if you have a private or a major or a colonel, everybody is a human being, and they all should be treated fairly and with respect."
Despite the challenges she faced as a child, Mathews had dreams of flying. She wanted to be a commercial airline pilot or a flight attendant — any job where she could be in flight.
After graduating from high school, she left the Ojibwe Reservation and enrolled in school at the University of North Dakota, where she got a bachelors degree in aviation administration and ratings in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. During her sophomore year, she took an ROTC course, and since she was barely scraping by on grants and loans, she enrolled permanently in the officer commissioning program. The Army paid her way through the rest of college, and she embarked on her military career.
When she graduated, she earned her commission as an aviation officer and began flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. Once again, even though she was already an experienced pilot, Mathews faced challenges — this time as a woman, not a Native American.
"I remember when I was going to flight school I was one of very few females in flight school, and I felt proud to be selected to be a part of something that was new," she said. "I think it challenged me more, because when you're the only female or two females out of 20, that challenges me, because you're already, I felt back then, at a disadvantage, because they're already looking at me as not as good as them. So I worked harder to be better."
Mathews, also a mother to two daughters, said the environment has improved considerably in the past 20 years. Gender matters less today compared to when she first arrived at flight school in the 1980s.
"Now we don't look at each other as male or female," she said, noting that Soldiers are now judged more by their accomplishments than anything else.
"That's how they look at you — your career or experience, not whether you're a male or female, or black, or white, or whatever your nationality is. We've come a long way, and it's good to see."
The chief of staff's experience as a young female officer in a largely male occupation, at the time, was a motivator, she said.
"I think that's what motivated me back then to be a better person, a better officer, a better pilot, or whatever my job was at the time, because I was at a disadvantage," she said. "And today it motivates me, not because I'm a female or because I'm any less of a person than anyone else. I think it's now, because I'm at the chief of staff level at a senior position in the Guard. I'm motivated to be a better person because of my position, because there are people looking up to me."
She knows that not only are other soldiers looking up to her, but so are other women and members of her tribe still living on the Ojibwe Reservation, where she still regularly returns.
Though Mathews has blazed the trail for other women in the National Guard, she has achieved many firsts for women in the Wisconsin Guard because of her credentials, not her gender.
"Col. Mathews is taking command of the 64th Troop Command because she is the best qualified officer poised to take this command at this critical time," Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the deputy adjutant general for Army, said during a ceremony when Mathews was selected as a brigade commander in October 2012.
"It's true that Col. Mathews has been the first in many areas of throughout her career," said Brig. Gen. Kenneth Koon, the state's assistant adjutant general for readiness and training — and Mathews' predecessor as chief of staff. "But it really hasn't been about her gender or ethnicity, but rather the best person available for the assignment at the time of selection."
As the chief of staff, Mathews will help shepherd the Guard through a challenging and uncertain time of potential budget cuts, asymmetrical warfare, and demanding domestic and overseas missions. Rather than dwelling on her past achievements, Mathews said she is focused on the future. Her top priorities as chief of staff will be combating sexual harassment and assault within the Guard's ranks, suicide prevention and maintaining the personnel readiness of the Wisconsin National Guard.
And, perhaps, continue a 27-year tradition of blazing new trails in the National Guard.