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Brokaw says graduates are tribe's modern-day warriors

KYLE, S.D. - One of the largest graduating classes in the 30-year history of Oglala Lakota College endured two hours in the unrelenting heat of an early summer sun in a cloudless sky to receive their diplomas and eagle plumes.

During the ceremony, keynote speaker Tom Brokaw of NBC Nightly News told them they were as much warriors for their tribe as their ancestors had been although their tools of battle had become higher education and other acquired job skills.

While most of their relatives and visiting guests watched from the shade of the surrounding circular arbor, the 146 graduates marched proudly into the center to take their seats then defend themselves from the 100-degree temperature with umbrellas and a steady flow of iced, bottled water.

Following an opening prayer by Richard Moves Camp, college President Tom Shortbull introduced Oglala Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele as a good friend, former board member and student of OLC.

"One thing that has been good about John Steele is that he's been a great supporter of Oglala Lakota College," said Shortbull. "We have been really lucky as an institution to have chairmen come in who have been very supportive. That doesn't happen on some other reservations."

Welcoming all, Steele said his support of the college had less to do with his personal participation with the school than with its larger impact on the reservation's people.

"The reason I'm a supporter of Oglala Lakota College is because of you, the 146 graduates, and the effect I see the college having on our whole population of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I think it's been the greatest thing that's happened here. It's changed our people, it's changed the reservation, it's changed our perspective. It's given us hope, even down to the little bitty child. They know Oglala Lakota College and that they have a chance to get higher education degrees. You today, in graduating, are proving that."

He thanked students for all they had endured - having to brave cold weather to make it to class, the lack of baby-sitters to watch their children while they went to school, and the sometimes daunting transportation problems on the reservation - only to sit in the hot sun this graduation day.

Steele encouraged them to consider taking their education even further and to realize their importance in the eyes of the Oglala tribe's young people.

"You are a role model for all the kids here, across the reservation, in the 17 different school systems. They see you struggling today as I mentioned, and they're going to do it, too. They want to be in your shoes as I would like to be myself."

Newton Cummings, president of the trustees, spoke of improvements and advances in the college during its 30 years, and its impact on improving the tribe's standard of living.

"We have a lot of our students who are now running our programs, teaching and administering our schools and programs on the reservation," he said. "I hope this continues. And I hope that as you get educated, you all remember that we need you here on the reservation to do this work for us, to provide a future for our future generations."

Brokaw connected easily with the Lakota audience through reminiscence and humor. "I never fail to learn something when I come to the land of the Oglala," he said. "In high school in Yankton, the name of the newspaper for which I wrote was called The Woksape. I actually didn't know what that meant until I was talking to President Shortbull this morning and learned that it means, in fact, learning. But I've had other experiences like that when I come to this reservation.'

Brokaw said truth-in-advertising prompted him to admit he now lives part of his life in Montana where he spends some time with the Crow. "There's a difference, however," he said. "When I talk to the Crow I have to speak more slowly and use shorter words." In the laughter that followed, Brokaw noted if humorous comment got back to Montana he might be forced to move to Pine Ridge.

He congratulated graduates on their achievements and remarked that the day was a grand occasion for yet another reason. "A hundred and twenty five years ago tomorrow, on the land of the Greasy Grass, Custer got what he had coming," Brokaw said. "Finally, after all these years, there is a movement to have a real memorial to the brave warriors of the tribes that were gathered there."

Brokaw reminded the group he was there to salute the members of the "Greatest Generation" from the tribe who fought in World War II, as well as graduates.

"Those men who went off to fight that great war and save the world are a living reminder, not only of the greatness of their generation, but of their people. Consider their place in your history. When they answered the call of their country, they were just two generations removed from the tragedy at Wounded Knee and the defeat of Custer at Little Bighorn."

"That's a stunning reminder of how swiftly history will change," Brokaw continued. "In less than 75 years, the great Lakota people went from being hunted and battling the American Army to fighting with it. It is also a reminder of the loyalty and patriotism and the values cherished by the Oglala as much as they are by white Americans. Unfortunately that loyalty, that patriotism, those values are too seldom commented upon in the description of your culture."

He said the inspiration of that generation's lives inspire us today because they remind today's generations that strength comes from common bonds and work toward common goals.

"We are then more than the sum of our parts," Brokaw said. "That was true at Little Bighorn, it is true today on the basketball court, or in the tribal council, the emergency room of the hospital, or among the Porcupine Singers. There are, everyday, those occasions when harmony and cooperation make us individually and collectively stronger, more productive and, ultimately, triumphant as we achieve common goals."

Brokaw told graduates their achievements and those of Oglala Lakota College accomplish the same defiance of stereotypes and was cause for celebration. This isn't the end of a road in what he called "a tough world," it is a beginning.

"Now that you know the personal fulfillment of a higher education degree and the opportunities that it will open to you, we trust you'll make it your personal mission to ensure that college is a common expectation of your tribe and your culture and not the rare exception. Let the Oglala tribe be known 50 years from now as ancestors of the greatest warriors and hunters, but also as contemporaries of the best educated. Make college and a college degree the symbol of your success for a proud people, wiping out symbols of despair and surrender."

"One hundred and fifty years ago the Oglala were masters of the Great Plains, proud, accomplished and determined in their mastery of horses, bison and their enemies, for that was what was necessary for survival. Now it is a new world and there are new requirements. As the Lakota/Dakota people moved westward from Minnesota and Wisconsin to ensure their survival, now they must move into education and the job skills of the new world for the same reason.

"All of us have to remember that no computer, no piece of software or server will offer the irreplaceable reward of being part of a great culture; of having a loving personal relationship; the strengths and comforts of a real community of shared values and common dreams; the moral underpinning of a life lived well whatever the financial scorecard," Brokaw said. "Nor will this new technology by itself make us more racially tolerant, more sensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised, or more courageous to take a stand for what we know is right. This new technology is merely a tool in our hands."