Graduation Time in Navajo Land

Thousands of Navajo, Hopi and Zuni students will graduate this month from high school.

When a Native American student graduates from any educational institution, the entire family and community gets involved. It is a testament to the bounty of love a family has for students when you look at the planning and hard work that goes into making graduations memorable for graduates and the family.

Yet, as I reflect on what graduations mean, I ponder on what our graduates will face in the future.

Given that unemployment is high on reservations throughout the United States, I am always amazed at the help Native American families give to each other so that special events like graduation celebrations commence. The fact is families all across Navajo, Hopi and Zuni are struggling to exist.

Jobs are scarce and opportunities to work close to home are extremely low for high school graduates. Housing is difficult to obtain as well. Perhaps that is why graduations are special. They allow us to take a day to celebrate an achievement of someone we care about.

One can’t help but think about the environment in which Navajo, Hopi and Zuni students exist. I truly believe it was the support of prayers, good thoughts, hopeful plans and the endless encouragement they got from many resources that enabled the class of 2011 to succeed.

The beauty of Dinetah (Navajoland), the Hopi mesas and the Zuni lands is breathtaking and peaceful. Nowhere on Mother earth does such immense beauty exist. While you, the students, may not realize it, the land helped sustain you each day you were in class.

The air you breathed, the warmth of the sun, the fall of the rains nurtured you. And I know for a fact, that some of you were at a moment when you felt down and sad, but you looked around and realized that Mother earth is solidly underneath your feet and you could–and would–keep walking onward.

That’s why it’s important for the graduates to realize that our land(s) is not to be taken for granted–ever. We are going to need the talent, skill, knowledge and positive mind-set of every able student to preserve and protect our people’s resources, lands and its natural inhabitants.

Therefore, graduates: Whether you chose college, vocational training, the military, or decide you want to get right to work, please know that we need prepared leaders, workers and people with ideas to help make our territories more prosperous.

Bringing sound business ideas and plans to the reservations is great, but actually bringing to fruition the opportunity for everyone to work is a challenge.

Creation of jobs in our communities is a topic every tribal chairman/president, lieutenant governor or council representative has tackled since the creation of the BIA tribal governing system. I would encourage graduates to become business oriented.

Getting back to graduation day, what I enjoy seeing is all the creativity expressed at these events.

As you attend graduations, you see some students dressed in thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and worn only on very special occasions. Some of the Navajo woven rug dresses are incredibly expensive. That’s not to say rented tuxedos are cheap.

You see cowboy hats under graduation caps. An eagle feather placed in the center of the graduation cap is moving. Or traditional clothes will adorn the entire student and they will wear only the graduation cap.
Yet, there are moments where reality hits your heart and soul.

What is and will always be most difficult to observe at any graduation is seeing an empty chair, placed in the seat an empty cap and gown. There are many reasons why some graduates do not get to live to see the day. They leave Mother earth due to illness, abuse, accidents, violent crime and sadly, suicide.

That is the reality and it hurts. So much promise goes unrealized.

Parents, legal custodians, grandparents and friends know very well what you went through to get to this phase of education. Obtaining an education is never easy.

It is a fact that Native American students rank highest for dropping out of high school and college. In fact, the numbers are staggering to see that Native students rank highest in teen pregnancy, suicide, death to violence, poverty, learning disabilities and drug abuse when compared to other races.

Part of the reason why I love attending graduations is I know only too well the challenges Native America is experiencing. The fact that we have graduations in our communities, communities that have earmarks of Third World conditions is a testament of tenacity, perseverance and hope.

Yet, in spite of the many challenges, the graduating class of 2011 has arrived. You arrived amid happy celebrations and we the family, friends, educators and people of the public are very proud of each and every one of you.

Valarie Tom is a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe and resides in Phoenix, Arizona where she grew up. Tom is also an award-winning journalist who has worked in magazine, print and television.

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