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Jared Nally
Special to Indian Country Today

LAWRENCE, Kan. — For the first time in over two years, the Haskell Indian Nations University campus gathered in-person to celebrate the academic milestones of its graduates — a momentous occasion marked by the emotional words of keynote speaker Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Graduate Mikalya Kerron, Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, said, “It’s a big moment just because COVID really put a lot of things back for Haskell in general.”

Kerron graduated last fall with her bachelor’s degree in Indigenous and American Indian studies and was recognized Friday with nearly 150 other graduates from the fall, spring, and summer semesters.

“(Success) takes relying on your community, your professors, your friends,” Kerron said. Her sentiment was shared by fellow graduate Alicia Swimmer, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“I’m lucky to have family support so I didn’t have to work during that time,” Swimmer said. (I could) really just concentrate on my studies.”

Swimmer graduated with a degree in business administration. “I’ve been raising my kid while going to school. Especially during the pandemic, I had struggles getting into the library,” she said.

In celebrating her accomplishment, Swimmer added, “It felt even more special that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland was here. We took selfies with her in the back after we walked out. It was kind of cool.”

Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, had also attended college as a parent and said, “You looked around the room today, and some were here with their families, some were here with their children. Their children got to see their parents graduating from college, and that in and of itself is tremendous.”

Two days earlier, Haaland and the Interior released a first-of-its-kind report called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report and spoke with the media.

“I mentioned in my speech that (Haskell) was a school, a boarding school, that meant to assimilate us when it first started up. It’s an amazing sight to see these students dressed in their traditional clothing, their traditional shoes, their traditional hair ornamentation, and so forth because that’s who they are and today we celebrate that. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was a guest speaker at the 2022 Haskell Indian Nations University commencement on May 13, 2022. (Photo by Jared Nally, for Indian Country Today)

Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, and a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, and Bureau of Indian Affairs Education Director Tony Dearman, Cherokee Nation, were also at the commencement.

Haaland’s message to graduates: “I am proof that you can do anything you set your mind to. I am proof that hard work can get you somewhere in our country… We are just now grasping the surface of what our country can do and how our country can heal with Indigenous leaders taking the helm.”

Haaland left graduates with this thought, “You have the potential to change the world and to chase your dreams, and you can do that at the same time—and you do that with thousands of ancestors and supporters behind you.”

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