MISSION, S.D. - The strongest message at Sinte Gleska University commencement came from a tribal elder who spent much of her life overcoming limited educational opportunities which forced her to work harder to achieve some remarkable goals.
Nellie Star Boy-Menard of Rosebud, a former boarding school student who later made her career teaching and advocating the arts, delivered high words of praise for the new graduates with the message they should take advantage of their education to further their own people.
Menard, in her 80s, received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995 in recognition for a lifetime of exceptional work as an artist, teacher and an advocate, furthering the arts, history and tribal culture.
"I want to say congratulations to all of the graduates. I'm very proud to be here to talk to you. I didn't have much of an education, just high school.
"I had to struggle to get to where am. I really had to work. I tried to look at things that other people did and I try to learn by them. I really had a hard time, but I made it."
The internationally known artist didn't realize there would be such a demand for her skills because she was unaware of the emerging interest in American Indian arts and crafts, but when the opportunities were offered she seized them.
The development of her talents began with the tradition of elders showing children how to do what was a part of their daily lives. Menard learned traditional tanning, beadwork, quill work and needle work from her grandmother. She said she often stood by her grandmother's side and watched.
Her first students, a group of young men drafted into the Army, were considered too old when they returned home to resume their education.
Teachers were reluctant to allow them in class, but Menard said she embraced the opportunity.
"I'll teach them. Fifty boys. I took them," she said.
Some of her first field trips took her students to a tribal elder's home where he told them tribal legends. She said the young men loved his stories.
Stories told by an elderly man near Ring Thunder fueled the imagination of art students whose work filled the wall of the old boarding school. That wall soon became an attraction for visitors, she said.
The 1933 graduate of Flandreau Indian School told graduates her work took her into museums where she worked as a curator. Even though she had demonstrated great skill and knowledge of her discipline, those who had college degrees were promoted to administrative positions, she said.
"This degree is going to help you all of your life."
Menard reminded graduates to reach out and help elderly tribal members who will need their help facing the challenges before them.
"You are smarter than they are. Help them. Don't shy away because the Indian people need your help."
Menard spoke with pride that younger tribal members were following the path the university's namesake wanted.
"Long time ago Spotted Tail wanted our tribe to go to school. When Spotted Tail pushed us into an education, it was the best thing he ever did. I'm really proud," said Menard, whose grandchild was sitting among the new graduates.
Menard continues to set an example and, although declining health has made it more difficult for her to show students how to do the tribal arts, she volunteers each week at clubs where children call her grandma.