KYLE, S.D. - Many graduation ceremonies are similar, with speeches, congratulatory messages, tears of joy and beaming smiles from graduates and family. At Oglala Lakota College, one of the oldest tribal colleges in the country, the ceremony is as much a celebratory event as anywhere else - with one exception.
The 168 graduates of OLC's class of 2007 have joined more than 3,000 other OLC graduates who have taken up the mantle of leadership for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and various organizations, and become role models for the younger generations.
Graduates received awards from certificates in various disciplines to master's degrees in Lakota leadership and management. Indian country will become the beneficiary of new graduates with degrees in human services, business administration, environmental sciences, elementary education, secondary education and accounting, and certificates in tribal management, television production and the Lakota language among many other disciplines.
Graduation at OLC is more than just a one-hour ceremony followed by family feasts; it is a three-day pow wow on the grounds of the Piya Wiconi center, or the main headquarters of OLC in Kyle. It becomes a reservation-wide event, reaching to the urban area: the largest of OLC's nine centers is located in Rapid City.
OLC not only provides for the education at the post-secondary level, it manages the Head Start program and recently graduated 183 Head Start students from across the Pine Ridge Reservation.
At the June 24 graduation ceremony, Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele made the point that OLC continues to play a major role in the future of the reservation and he said of the college, ''This is the best learning institution in Indian America; you graduates are getting your degree from the best institution.
''The people of our tribe are very proud of you,'' Steele said.
While the summer sun attempted to bake the outside of the graduates, their inner joy and enthusiasm kept them comfortable and a glimpse of the seated graduates revealed many smiles behind the waving programs and umbrellas that kept them a little cooler.
No smile, however, was greater than that of former Tribal President Wilbur Between Lodges, who received a certificate in Lakota language.
The ages of the graduates and certificate recipients ran the gamut from the traditional student in their 20s to elders; altogether, the graduates represented many generations of Lakota.
The elders received some of the audience's most intense applause.
''I want to commend you graduates for the hard times you went through to get where you are today. Many of you are parents, single parents, and many of you have jobs and many of you find it hard and difficult to get to class every day, so you must have done a good job because you are here today to receive your diploma,'' said Newton Cummings, president of the OLC board of trustees.
''I'm proud to see that we have a lot of our graduates from OLC now working for the tribe, for Indian Health Service and other programs on the reservation. And that is what Oglala Lakota College is all about: to prepare our students to help serve our people and make a better reservation for all of us to live in,'' Cummings said.
''I know you as graduates will do the best job you can to pursue that effort so we are not always having problems here on the reservation as we have in the past,'' he said.
OLC has graduated enough teachers through the past few years to now boast that 80 percent of all teachers on Pine Ridge are graduates of OLC. A growing number of nurses who work at the IHS facility and other clinics are graduates of the OLC nursing program, which now has its own location.
Most of the classes conducted by OLC are held in the evenings, which give many non-traditional students an opportunity to pursue college degrees. The trend of non-traditional students has grown among all tribal colleges.
The keynote speaker for the OLC graduation ceremony, Stan Adelstein, a former state senator and a businessman who was named South Dakota Philanthropist of the Year in 2004, knows first-hand the value of attending classes in the evening.
''You who are here today have chosen to learn, and to learn well. You are nurses, teachers, managers, educational administrators, business administrators and even more. You represent the future, you are the example for the youth where nothing is impossible, you can do whatever you chose to do, you must know that you are looked to as the model for the future,'' Adelstein said.
''What we do on Earth will be remembered and seen by those for generations to come ... whatever you do for the world will live beyond you.''
His message strongly urged the graduates to remain who they are, Lakota, and to go out into the world and use their education for the better good of the people and he also urged them to not become assimilated. Adelstein said the graduates should integrate into society instead of assimilating so they will not be absorbed into society and therefore possibly lost.
''When you leave here today, look at your horizon: it's a different horizon than you saw when you started at OLC. That's the horizon you chose, and as you go through life using these things you have done look at your horizon and plan your paths. ...
''As we sit here, join with me and think; think about who you are, honor your Lakota values and make the world of your Lakota people a special place,'' Adelstein said.
The graduates of OLC have a responsibility to carry on a tradition for the Lakota people, to be leaders and role models for future generations. They are also expected to make changes that will benefit others.
''We are great people. Through our blood runs the genes of great people, great leaders that we had as Oglala Lakota people: Red Cloud, Man Afraid of His Horses, Little Wound, American Horse.
''You as graduates now have to take up that role, as leaders responsible for making change and as role models. So I ask you to take up that role for us as Indian people to be role models for our people on this reservation,'' OLC President Tom Short Bull said.