MISSION, S.D. ? More than 80 students received their diplomas at Sinte Gleska University in a day of honoring achievements and challenges to enrich the lives of others.
'What you can do with your education is touch people in a positive way and make a profound difference,' keynote speaker State Sen. Ron J. Volesky told those gathered on the Antelope campus.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate spoke above a background of tribal drums, encouraging students to make a difference by getting involved in their communities and political systems. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The achievement of gaining a degree brings with it a new set of challenges including finding ways to better a community, he said. 'With achievement comes honor, and responsibility and with responsibility comes consequences.
'I challenge you today to exercise that responsibility you now have. If you do that, we can make things better in Indian country,' Volesky said. 'I'm challenging you to get out and participate in that process.'
Volesky endorsed the idea of a national tribal college asking, 'Why not a national tribal college in South Dakota.'
The Standing Rock Sioux tribal member illustrated his point about getting involved with a story about a road that was never fixed even though it was a threat to motorists. Through neglect, local government failed to straighten the curves and lives were lost because nobody involved themselves in promoting change.
'We can straighten the road for a variety of issues including health care, sovereignty, and economic development. We can straighten out the road, but you have to be involved,' he said. 'Divided we can not win. United we can not lose.'
With every obstacle, there is an opportunity for progress, said Volesky, who referred to his own loss in a congressional race a number of years ago. That loss provided him some very valuable lessons about politics and campaigning, he said.
'Turn them into blessings. Turn them into victories.'
Volesky, orphaned as a child, said he learned powerful lessons from the parents who struggled to adopt him. At the time, social services considered his adoptive parents, in their 40s, too old to adopt a child, he said. Still they, too, were determined and won their battle.
Volesky grew up away from the reservation in a town that offered a university setting which fueled his success. He was nominated as a Rhodes scholar and earned his law degree.
Volesky encouraged graduates to help others by supporting them in their efforts to grab opportunity. 'You've stood on the shoulders of other people, now it is time to let others stand on your shoulders.'
He reminded graduates that Martin Luther King's measure of a man was how he stood in the face of controversy.
The graduates learned of controversy firsthand this year as the president of the tribal university was ousted by a community-elected board of regents and then reinstated by the tribal government.
The board of regents was dissolved by the tribal council and an interim board was
appointed. Early on commencement morning, new board members were selected in a community-wide election. However, some community members suggested there wasn't enough notice to tribal members who might have wanted to vote.
SGU President Lionel Bordeaux acknowledged the controversy saying, 'It has been a rough road. It has made us stronger and we continue to move in a positive direction.
'You are already redefining and restructuring education with leadership in the community and economic development. You sit with a tremendous task of teaching others,' Bordeaux told graduates.
The commencement ceremony incorporated a high reverence for traditional ceremony, honoring those whose lives ended while they were making significant contributions to education such as Doris Leader Charge, a Lakota linguist who died during the school year.
Instead of moving a tassel over on the mortarboard, sponsors ? usually close
family members ? stood behind graduates to place an eagle feather in their hair.
Many of the graduates were wrapped in quilts bestowed as an honor for their educational achievements.
At least 18 students from five other tribal colleges including from Si Tanka Tribal College, Sitting Bull College, Leech Lake Tribal College, Ihanktonwan Community College and Lower Brule community college received degrees at the commencement ceremony.
Tracey Peters, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, was like many of the students who received bachelor's degrees. She had attended Bemidji State University receiving a degree in Native language but decided she wanted a degree in elementary education. Peters plans to use her degree to develop culturally-relevant curriculum for elementary students.
Carmen White Horse, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, received an associate's degree in Lakota studies. She overcame a series of hurdles to earn her degree while raising her own children and grandchildren.