JoAnn Kauffman, Nez Perce, received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters during commencement ceremonies at Eastern Washington University on June 16, when she also served as one of two commencement speakers.
She served from 2003-2015 as a trustee at Eastern Washington University including two terms as chairwoman. One of her first acts as trustee was to convince the university president to eliminate the bricks in the school commons inscribed with the name of the former school mascot, the Savage. The bricks had remained despite the change in mascot.
JoAnn Kauffman frequently referred to Native American history and concepts while addressing the roughly 3,000 graduates at commencement.
“Way back in the early 70s, EWU was among a handful of universities to recognize that its longtime sports mascot might be offensive or even insulting to Native Americans,” JoAnn Kauffman explained. “In 1973 the students voted to change the name, a name which I will not say, to the new name: Eastern Eagles.” She noted that the eagle “is a truly spectacular creature. Among the Nez Perce and many other tribes the eagle is considered sacred. It is believed to have the power to see what is coming, seeing beyond the hills and clouds, and carries our prayers and songs to the Creator.”
“It is my hope and wish that some qualities of the eagle spirit will stay with each of you as you leave this campus and commence your career,” she said.
She spoke of history and changes in the lives of her people during the lifetime of her grandmother, how they had hunted buffalo on the plains and fished for salmon at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. Then came the influx of a different culture and the arrival of cars, trains, electricity, telephones and construction of dams and men walking on the moon. “She was convinced a great celestial balance had forever been disturbed.”
“Like my grandmother, we live in fast-changing, exciting, and sometimes troubling times. Your voice, your leadership, and your skills are needed today. One person can make a difference,” she told the graduates.
JoAnn has lived a remarkable life. She and her siblings were raised in difficult conditions, yet all overcame that childhood in a big way. Claudia Kauffman was the first Native American woman to serve in the Senate in the State of Washington. Hattie Kauffman had a long career in television and was a National News Correspondent for “The Early Show” on CBS and thus the first Native American national news correspondent. Their brother John was a successful actor and director in Seattle. JoAnn founded Kauffman & Associates, Inc. with offices in Spokane, Washington and Washington D.C.
Kauffman & Associates was formed in 1990 and is recognized nationally for its advocacy for Indian health and justice. JoAnn Kauffman received the “Free Spirit Award,” a national recognition, from the Freedom Forum in 1998 for her work as a community activist and advocate for First Amendment issues.
She won federal recognition for Nez Perce historical sites, one of her proudest accomplishments as it aided in retracing historical sites of her tribe, the Nez Perce or Nimi’ipuu. She worked for the prevention of bullying and suicide in Indian country. She was executive director of the North Idaho Indian Health Board, and then took over leadership of the Seattle Indian Health Board. She helped negotiate a deal creating the Leschi Center in Seattle, which incorporated various services for elders. The list goes on.
She is now leading an effort to establish and fund a Lucy Covington Center to support Native American students at EWU. Lucy Covington, from the Colville Reservation, fought against the government and the termination bill of the 1950s and became a leader in civil rights and protection of tribal lands. “The center will serve as a confluence of cultures and ideas, where students can gather and work together to make the university a more powerful place for positive change,” JoAnn Kauffman explained.
“As a Native American woman I know I am standing on the shoulders of my ancestors who fought, struggled, and sacrificed so their descendants might love this land as they did. Their struggle and survival made my own journey possible. I am also honored to stand upon the legacy of Lucy Covington,” she said.
“Each of you also stands on the shoulders of your own ancestors. Perhaps your ancestors emigrated from far off lands to escape persecution or poverty, traveling to America with the hope their family and descendants might enjoy a better life. Maybe your family followed the agricultural crops, working long hard hours in the sun and moving from harvest to harvest. Or perhaps your ancestors were indigenous to this place, the Spokane people, and your feet walk the same ground that generations of your family walked since time immemorial. Embrace your story. Share your story. It can be powerful medicine for our journey ahead together,” she said during the commencement.
“To you graduates, I present a special call to action for you today. You stand at the cutting edge of our common future. Your work can open doors to discoveries and new opportunities. My prayer for you is that this beautiful blue and green orb we all call home will be at the center of your work. In the words of Chief Joseph, ‘The earth is our mother.’”
JoAnn Kauffman ended her address by saying, “You can make a difference and the ripple created by your efforts can create changes that make the world a better place. It has happened before and will happen again. Congratulations Class of 2017. Go Eagles!”