"...everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it,
and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence."
Christine Quintasket p/k/a Mourning Dove, Okanagan
Congratulations, all Indian graduates.
Whether you graduated from high school (I have a bunch of nieces and nephews who graduated this year), college, culinary arts school, law school or medical school, your graduation signifies something big for Indian people. Very big. Be proud of yourselves—you defied the odds and showed that Native people can be successful according to all standards of success, Native and non-Native, traditional and contemporary. You are the cream of the crop and give hope that Indian people do not have to sacrifice “being Indian” in order to achieve mainstream success.
Your purpose is to be both “Indian” and “successful”; you can remember, honor, and give service to your homelands and still make money. Good job!
Still, nothing is free. Just as your purpose is to wade into uncharted educational waters to show the younger generation the map, our Indian ancestors’ purpose was to pay, painfully, for our right to improve our lives through education. Those ancestors benevolently pre-paid our tuition in blood, broken dreams, beatings and sexual abuse. They paid because they knew that protecting our homelands and our Indian way of life was worth it and that we needed educated people in order to protect those valuable things.
See, for many years Natives simply could not go into higher education. Sure, there were a few exceptions—some Indians just had such irrepressible talents and knowledge that there was really no way to keep those people out of the hallowed halls of higher education.
As would be the case with other race of people, those folks were rare.
The vast majority of us are not academic prodigies, and do not carry such educational pedigrees. In fact, since the end of the Treaty Period (1871), many of our Indian ancestors held very skeptical views toward “the white man’s education” because of the disrespect that they had to endure. Many of our grandparents attended boarding schools and could not wait to get out of those abusive school settings. They hated the loneliness of being pulled away from their families, hated worse the sexual abuse that was rampant at those schools, and despised the punishment that the school administrators doled out as a result of speaking Indian languages and simply being Indian. The theory, after all, was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Those boarding schools colored our grandparents’ views of “education,” therefore they would never step foot into a school again if they could help it!
Can we blame them?
Still, those grandparents and great-grandparents helped pay for your education every single time the teachers flogged them for speaking their language or for playing joyfully. You ever wonder why none of the kids ever smiled in those old boarding school photos? It’s not because Indians are “stoic”—it’s because the school administrators beat the joy out of them. Daily. Brutally. Simply for being kids.
Still those grandparents and great-grandparents, strictly by faith, encouraged the next generation to go get a “formal” education because they thought that it was the way toward equality. They had faith—unjustified faith—that their children’s educational experiences would be better than their own.
Fast-forward one generation, to our parents', aunties' and uncles' generation. Those Indians, with no history of education to lean on, made great strides toward achieving some proficiency in school. They tried as hard as they could; they utilized the newly created Tribal College system to get Associates' Degrees and a greater number of that generation went on to four-year institutions and got Bachelors' Degrees. Amazing. They popped up out of nowhere and created the infrastructure to an educational legacy out of thin air—poof! Everybody knows those folks—every rez has them—families who somehow pulled themselves up by their moccasins and whose kids now reap the benefits of their amazingly strong parents.
Perhaps they went to Fort Lewis or Haskell or University of Montana; wherever they went, they came, they saw, they made history. There were not a lot of Indians who got to experience these educational opportunities—most of our parents were still very poor. Still, there were enough of them that we realized, “It can be done.” That generation’s purpose was to show that Indian people can do the same work as everyone else if we’re given the same opportunities.
My generation continued the legacy that the previous one began, finding more meaningful opportunities in top schools. My generation’s purpose is to help you—the generation of Indian graduates that can literally accomplish anything.
Now, your generation is growing up and is one more generation removed from the boarding schools and the seeming hopelessness of previous generations. Things are far from perfect; still, there are many more opportunities for Native students who want to go to school now than existed in previous times. There are scholarships and internships available from Washington, DC to Albuquerque, New Mexico and all places in-between. Also, there are a whole lot of folks—those folks who went to school from the previous generation, my generation—you can lean on and ask for assistance or advice about everything from how to fill out a financial aid form to writing a personal statement.
Ask us. Use us. Please.
But it is your time to figure out your purpose. As Miss Quintasket said, “everything on the earth has a purpose”; you did not graduate by accident and you did not graduate alone. Instead, you are the culmination of generations and generations of Indian people who had no opportunities, yet, on faith, invested in your right to go school. They believed that you must go to school. They fought to include “education” language in treaties, they fought for Title VII rights, they fought so that white teachers would stop funneling Indian kids into special ed classes. It’s been a fight every step of the way, and they did it for you.
What is your purpose? How are you going to help Indian people with your hard-earned education? I know some argue that you have no obligation to help our communities with your educational opportunities—I say “horse patuey.” You did not get to where you are by yourself. No, there is a several-hundred-year legacy of Indian people paying for your educational opportunities. You did not graduate simply to make money and go buy a large television; those things are nice, of course, but your purpose is greater than that. Our homelands and Indian way of life are still worth protecting and you are the chosen ones to protect those things.
Gyasi Ross comes from the Blackfeet Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. His Blackfoot name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is a proud father, a lawyer and a writer; he is the author of the series “The Thing About Skins” in the former Indian Country Today. He is also co-owner of Red Vinyl Records working with inspiring Native talent, and plans to finish his book, “Don’t Know a Lot About Indians (But I Wrote a Book About Us Anyway)” very soon.