ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In previous years, graduating seniors from Santa Fe Indian School would wait patiently for their names to be called.
Dressed in their respective regalia, each would receive a high school diploma.
With the pandemic in full force, students returned home in mid-March and SFIS made an attempt at remote learning.
New Mexico tribes responded to the health concerns by closing borders and restricting off-reservation travel by tribal members to stop the spread of the virus.
To protect families and communities, the 19 Pueblo governors, whose pueblos own and operate SFIS, counseled school leaders to provide a virtual online graduation.
A caveat remained – tribal lands are on the wrong side of the digital divide, with 41% of people living on tribal lands lacking access to broadband. The deficit jumps to 68% for those living in rural areas.
“At the last governor’s leadership meeting, we asked their feedback and guidance with SFIS,” says Kimball Sekaquaptewa, PIO and chief technology director at SFIS. “We shared our experience of what it was like and shared some possibilities of what school could look like.”
Students connected to classes in any way they could, often relying on parking lot Wi-Fi at tribal libraries, cellular data plans where there was coverage, or pre-paid cellular data plans as they could afford it. Others didn’t connect at all and alternative means of communication were used.
Some seniors typed up their capstone research papers on their cellphones.
One student hand-wrote the paper and took pictures of the pages.
Despite the challenges, the 107 seniors of the graduating class persevered, determined to take life’s next step.
“The SFIS graduation is one of the most beautiful events that just does not compare to other graduations,” said Faith Rosetta, SFIS principal. “In any other year, the seniors enter the Everett F. Chavez Pueblo Pavilion adorned in their finest traditional garments to a traditional drumbeat and a packed audience of 3,000 family, friends, school staff and tribal leaders.”
SFIS is an off-reservation boarding school. Two-thirds of students live in the dorms for five days a week.
The school brings together students from all 19 Pueblos, the Navajo Nation and Apache Tribes, which is a lot of ground to cover.
“That has become the focus of the conversation,” Sekaquaptewa said. “Parents wanted to wait for a graduation. But bringing people together in these times. In our small Native communities, every person is such a treasure that we didn’t want to put anyone at risk.”
Then came the fact that most Native communities don’t have access to high-speed internet.
Enter New Mexico PBS and First Nations Experience.
The station will broadcast the virtual celebration for seniors and eighth-graders at 6 p.m. Friday and again at 10 a.m. Saturday; both broadcasts will be on channel 5.3. Those interested can also view it online at portal.knme.org.
“We were trying to get around the fact that rural Indian lands don’t have high-speed internet,” she said. “The suggestion came up to partner with New Mexico PBS. They were supportive of the idea and found a way to help. The idea of broadcasting it is the best way to get across to the 19 pueblos, as well as the Apache Nation and Navajo Nation.”