Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Wearing turquoise and silver earrings and a necklace to match, the head of the U.S. Department of the Interior told graduates of New Mexico’s only national Indian college Thursday that her service to the nation is, in part, an effort “to try to undo some of what we have not done well for hundreds of years.”
Secretary Sally Jewell, who just reached her first anniversary as a cabinet member, gave the commencement address Thursday at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, promising the continued support of the Obama administration to Native Americans.
Jewell, who is white, told nearly 100 graduates, their families and faculty and staff that those who are the first in their families to graduate from college are, in a sense, pioneers.
She also recalled how the fear of the unknown affected her as her career moved from one job to another, one location to the next. An obvious example, she said, was the move from her home in Washington state to “that other Washington,” which she met “with some nervousness and some trepidation.”
“It is hard to let go of the ‘from’ if we don’t know where the ‘to’ is,” she said.
SIPI is a national Indian community college and land grant institution.
The graduation ceremony was a blend of traditional American Indian and conventional commencement ritual. Most of the class of 2014 were adorned in mortarboard caps and gowns, but several wore Indian-inspired costumes. Peeking out from under the flowing black gowns were a combination of moccasins and ankle wraps – and six-inch heels. “Pomp and Circumstance” played quietly in the background as the graduates received their diplomas, but the gathering was also infused with Indian drumming, prayers and chants.
Most of the ceremony was in English, but Jewell and other speakers welcomed guests and praised the graduates in Indian languages. Kansas Begay, a Navajo who has been named Miss Indian World, sang a benediction in her native language. The presentation of the colors, including Old Glory and a black-and-white POW-MIA flag, by the Walatowa Veterans Association, also paid homage to a fur-wrapped staff topped with deer antlers.
Graduate Dylan Kayson, a White Mountain Apache, sang the “Star Spangled Banner” in Apache.
Student of the year Waylon Ballew, of the Pacific Northwest’s Lummi Tribe, said the mortarboard tassels represented eagle feathers. “The sky is the limit,” he said. “You have earned those feathers to fly.”
Dr. Sherry Allison, SIPI’s president, opened her brief remarks by proclaiming, “It’s a good day to be an Indian!”
Jewell, while stressing the commonality of all people, said she thinks we “are all tribal by nature.” But more than anything, her tone was inspirational, extolling the benefits of hope, wisdom, education and hard work.
“You make us proud, very proud,” Jewell said. “I take great comfort in this next generation and where you’re going to lead us.”