Victoria Garica struggled when she first arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, from the small Round Valley reservation some four hours away in Northern California.
As a first-generation low-income student at Berkeley, she often felt the pull of home, felt overwhelmed at times among 30,000 students and at one point faced academic probation. But on May 18, she celebrated overcoming all the obstacles and cultural insensitivity that many Native students face at college campuses, by presenting a spoken word poem to nearly 150 who had gathered for the UC-Berkeley Native American graduation ceremony.
“Attending this university is a slap in the face to every substitute who told me that I couldn’t and that I can’t,” Garica, Chiricahua Apache, said. “This ugly duckling has found her beauty… like a bird free from its cage, I will no longer be contained, and I will keep breaking my chains.”
At the ceremony a total of 20 Native graduates—12 earning their bachelor’s, four earning master’s, two earning doctorates and two earning law degrees—were honored, each receiving a Pendleton blanket and raucous applause for their achievements.
Those who had the opportunity to speak discussed the challenges many Native students face at UC-Berkeley, an institution where the number of Native students is dwarfed by the nearly 9,200 Native remains in its museum’s storage facility. This prompts many students to note there are “more dead Indians on campus than alive.”
Many students thanked the tireless work of the Native American Student Development program’s staff for helping them get through their studies, and they said a great deal of support was available at UC-Berkeley to guide them.
In his remarks, Darren Modzelewski, Blackfeet, who earned his law degree, advocated for the return of the remains to their appropriate homes, but also spoke about how the students’ can use their education to fight for social justice and the revitalization of their culture and rights.
“We have changed this place. We have made it better every time we’ve raised our voices in class and rose up as activists, and we have made it better for the people coming up behind us,” he said. “All of the graduates here have shown the compassion, the courage and the strength it takes to thrive in a difficult, unfamiliar place.”