SANTA FE – First lady Michelle Obama exhorted this year’s 104 graduates of the Santa Fe Indian School on Thursday to stay true to their roots but face adversity head-on, saying, “Your communities need you.”
“They need you to bring home additional knowledge and skills to more effectively address the challenges your communities face,” Obama said during her 22-minute commencement address at the school.
The first lady made the quick trip to New Mexico – she did not hold any other events while in the state – to speak at the graduation ceremony as part of a White House initiative aimed at promoting national dialogue and training future leaders.
Her appearance was greeted by a standing ovation from a crowd of nearly 3,300 people at the Santa Fe Indian School Pueblo Pavilion Wellness Center that included state and local Democratic Party officials, including Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
But she also spoke bluntly about the history of Native American oppression in the United States, saying the Santa Fe Indian School was founded as part of a “deliberate, systematic effort to extinguish your cultures.”
“Today, the Native languages that were once strictly forbidden here now echo through the hallways and in your dorm room conversations at night,” Obama added.
The first lady also shared personal stories in her Thursday remarks, saying her great-great grandfather was a slave who was likely buried in an unmarked grave on the planation where he worked.
She said her own journey – which has taken her from a childhood in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago to Princeton University and, eventually, the White House – enabled her to relate to graduating students.
“Today, I want you to know that there is nowhere I would rather be than right here with all of you,” Obama said.
The presence of the first lady put a spotlight on Santa Fe Indian School, which is owned and operated by the 19 pueblo tribes of New Mexico and has a total enrollment of roughly 650 students from around the state and region. The school also has an average graduation rate of 98 percent over the past five years, compared with the New Mexico statewide average of about 70 percent.
Emanuel Vigil, the valedictorian of this year’s graduating class, who is headed to Columbia University in the fall, said the first lady’s visit could increase the school’s visibility.
Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, also told reporters he’s optimistic that a Native American might be elected president in his lifetime, adding, “I really would like that someday.”
Another student, Charles Van Pelt, said before the first lady’s remarks that he wasn’t sure what he’d say to Obama if given the chance to meet her.
“It’s an incredible feeling that the first lady chose us here in New Mexico,” said Van Pelt, who wants to be a math teacher and is a member of Cochiti Pueblo and the Umatilla tribe in Oregon.
After her speech, Obama was given a traditional blanket by two graduating students, Shilyn Platero-Fisher and Fatima Garcia.
The first lady’s visit to New Mexico was the latest of several visits by high-profile political figures. Presidential candidates Donald Trump, a Republican, and Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, both have held campaign events in New Mexico in the past week, and former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, this week in Española and Albuquerque.
Michelle Obama appeared to make a reference to Trump – though she did not mention him directly – when she told graduates that “some of the loudest voices in our national conversation are saying things that go against every single one of the values that you’ve been living at this school.”
The Thursday stop in Santa Fe also represented a return to New Mexico for the 52-year-old first lady, who spent time in the state in 2008 campaigning for her husband, President Barack Obama.