Whether recognized in ceremony by cap and gown alone, or punctuated with eagle feathers, honor songs or star quilts lovingly sown by aunties and grandmothers, graduations are public acknowledgements that students have met academic and professional standards. For some graduates, they serve to bookend years of discipline and hard work. For others, they are a reminder of the sheer willpower and endurance it took to succeed on a given academic level.
As native people, we love to give honor and celebrate—so it’s no wonder that graduations become occasions unto themselves. During graduations, I have heard non-natives take note that when a native person graduates, our celebration as natives isn’t just about elevating the graduate—it turns into an event where the graduate’s family, friends, community, and even Tribe experience honor and rejoice because of the native graduate’s achievement. We triumph together and rightly so. When a native person graduates, his or her success was not an exclusive endeavor. Sure, an individual must sit for exams alone—but there’s a grandmother, sibling, or best friend who’s babysitting that student’s child. There are study partners from Tribes separated by many miles and different cultures who are bound together by mutual experience and similar heritages who fight their academic battles together and stay strong because of it. Parents, uncles and aunties sell Indian Tacos to raise money for class field trips. School teachers and counselors help hardworking high school students apply for scholarships and admissions to college. Regardless of our trials as indigenous peoples in America and the federal government’s past efforts to exterminate and assimilate us, we’ve survived—and so has our tribal connection. We rise and fall together. At our best, our connection to one another implores us not to give up and to use our knowledge and skills to make a difference.
Therefore, as natives, the successes we taste are not just our own. As Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have been able to see further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Graduations mark new beginnings. The whole world lies before the graduate. Yes, humanity is imperfect. War, global warming, poverty, inequality, substance abuse and crime are just a few of our concerns. Yet no matter how bleak, our problems are not insurmountable. We still live in a time of great opportunity. Don’t believe the hype: As native people, the best is yet to come.
Non-Indians, and even some American Indians, tend to think of natives in the past tense. They romanticize the time before European immigrants invaded this land, or even the late 1800s, when Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and many other brave leaders were at war with the United States. This is evidenced by the stereotypical imagery of natives in pop culture and as mascots—i.e., the stoic chief in a headdress and buckskin perched in front of a tipi, making smoke signals. What they fail to realize is we are still here.
As a native person, know that living during a bygone era does not make one more “Indian.” We are just as native as we have ever been. We are our ancestors. We are their legacy. They wouldn’t want us to glamorize their history. Rather, they would have us learn from it, hold it in our hearts, and forge new paths for future generations. They would tell us, we are a people of the present, not the past. Driving a car or having a laptop in no way diminishes your nativeness! Those natives who’ve experienced technical difficulty and smudged the device with sage first before calling IT support have already come to this realization.
Natives who have gone before us would think that we who live today are doubly blessed, despite the obstacles we face. We don’t have to chase down our food on a daily basis. We have shelter, warmth and safety in comparison. If we work hard and keep to our values, we have the opportunity to educate ourselves, use our gifts, and make a difference.
Someone like me could not have existed in any past era. As an American Indian and a woman, I would have been virtually shut out and absolutely discouraged from any intellectual pursuit or higher education. While the path is difficult and narrow, our native forefathers have showed us the way. More than ever, native people have an opportunity to mold the future.
Some say a Native American renaissance began in the 1960s. Others say the seventh generation is upon us. Whatever syntax is used to describe it, there is a movement taking place. One need only look to the amazingly talented, bright, free-thinking native people who are now writers, painters, lawyers, musicians, scientists, community organizers, traditional practitioners, educators, artisans and intellectuals who are acting as bridges between the ancient cultures they personify and the global culture we live in today. We are on the cusp of tomorrow. Don’t sit on your hands. Ignore the negative spirits. Do your part. Our time is now.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at email@example.com