RONAN, Mont. - The beat of the drum heralded the beginning of graduation
exercises for students at Salish Kootenai College. Elders Octave Finley and
Agnes Kenmille, dressed in tribal regalia, led the grand entry as students
filed into the gymnasium to hear a commencement address by Gov. Brian
Schweitzer and receive their diplomas.
A welcome was offered by Steve Lozar, a council member for the Confederated
Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a 24-year instructor at the college. He
encouraged graduates to do great things while always embracing their Native
values, and he spoke of how earlier graduates were now recognized for their
leadership throughout Indian country.
Misty Hirsch, student senate vice president, gave the student address. She
challenged students "to not go gently into the future. Ask questions. Seek
change. Lead by example and share your heart. If something is wrong, seek a
solution. If something is right, embrace its success. Let the moccasin step
you leave go deeper and deeper into your community, your future and into
SKC President Dr. Joseph McDonald introduced Schweitzer by commenting:
"It's a great joy to go to the state Capitol now. Each person is treated
like a guest. The governor's staff goes all-out to help. The governor is
there to talk to you and listen to you and hear what you have to say. The
entire mood of state government has changed." He presented the governor
with an honorary Bachelor of Arts degree in Native American Studies, "the
highest award our college can give."
Schweitzer drew enthusiastic and prolonged applause throughout his
commencement address. Appropriately dressed in blue jeans and a beaded
vest, his remarks were loudly received. He began by saying, "On Jan. 3 I
stood in the rotunda of the Capitol building with the sound of the drums,
and I said to the people of Montana: 'It's a new day in Montana. We will
respect all the people of Montana and, first and foremost, the first
Montanans.'" He continued, "We have already appointed more people from
Indian country than the previous 22 governors combined."
Regarding education, the governor stated: "We have put historic amounts of
money in our tribal colleges because we believe the opportunity to build on
the culture that has been here for 10,000 years is good for all of Montana
and we will invest in tribal colleges. We believe that every child living
in Montana should know the rich cultural history of Montana for the 10,000
years before Lewis and Clark stumbled across Montana.
"What makes this country the greatest country on this planet is not our
immense natural resources, because there are countries that have more. It
is not the size of our rivers, the size of our mountains, the size of our
seacoasts. What makes this country the greatest country in the world is
"It doesn't matter if you were born into a family with just one parent and
that one parent has two jobs and you live in the smallest house in the
community. Or if both parents have Ph.D.s and you live on the country club
in the ritziest part of this county. It matters not a whit because with
public education, your heart, your head, you can go anywhere. It's not
about your parents: it's about you - and that is why we're the greatest
country in the world."
The governor urged the graduates to enjoy the future, not to rush it but to
take it one day at a time and to take time to be with family. "Furthermore,
never forget where you came from," he said. "You have the richest cultural
background of any place on this planet."
He also encouraged them to do two things. First, be great ambassadors and
take their cultural background and great sense of humor to let the world
know about their home community. Secondly, after they'd traveled: "Come
home. We need you. You are the brightest and the best. Please come home and
help us to grow."
He asked everyone to consider working for the state of Montana. He said he
hoped that eventually every sixth or seventh person in state government
will be from Indian country and that would be a lasting legacy to his
administration. "Come to state government and be part of the most
progressive, the most Indian-friendly administration in the history of this
country," he added.
Several honorary degrees were awarded by McDonald. Following those awards,
nearly 180 SKC students came forth to receive their diplomas and
certificates of graduation.