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Kalle Benallie

Indian Country Today

Graduation commencements are still happening — virtually.

The 2020 class of Native students completing kindergarten, high school, vocational programs, colleges, and graduate programs will be celebrating their accomplishments and throw their hats in the air online with the Virtual Indigenous Commencement.

Graduates can participate in the graduation ceremony and the 5,000 members of the public group on Facebook can post videos, pictures and messages dedicated to students on the main page. Many of the posts have a dozen or more families, friends and supporters congratulating them.

One post said graduating high school senior Duane Burnett, Eastern Shoshone, plans to pursue a nursing degree to help his community.

“It’s been exciting to see everyone engaging, everyone being so positive in a time when it’s easy to be negative,” said Melvin Monette-Barajas, president and CEO of Indigenous Education Inc., and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.

Monette-Barajas helped create the event after being inspired by the social distance powwow online.

“It was a sudden development, about a month ago. Staff got on board, I hired young people who are way smarter than me and they have been creating everything and putting everything together,” he said.

Thirteen organizations are collaborating with the Indigenous Education Inc. which include the Harvard University Native American Program, Yale University, Arizona State University, the National Indian Education Association and the American Indian College Fund.

“Everyone’s been doing it from home, a lot of zoom meetings two or three times a day to make sure that everything is going to go off without a hitch,” Monette-Barajas said.

Monette-Barajas said the commencement will feature a two-hour video consisting of a prayer, guest speakers, a drum song and a short summary of each graduate that are submitted.

Speakers include Amanda Tachine, Dr. Henrietta Mann, Dr. Twyla Baker, Dr. John Herrington, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Carmen Lopez and more. 

speakers virtual commencement

Blythe George, Yurok, said despite her and her family looking forward to graduating Harvard University for years, she is grateful to be joining the commencement ceremony.

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“If this sacrifice is one of the many that will help keep us and our loved ones safe, I would give it up many times over,” George wrote in an email. “But today, I celebrate our accomplishments and I recognize the triumphs and the perseverance that brought each of us to this milestone.”

Even if all the videos don’t get included today, there is a plan for the graduation videos to continue to the summer depending on how the pandemic continues and all the graduating students should be recognized, he said.

“We need to show our students there are still ways for us to gather and be together while we’re physically distanced,” he said. “And this is really important for our students because they’re not getting that face to face hug, face to face gift and face to face handout of their diploma.”

He added the effort is a way for Indian Country to show support and allow family members to join in on the celebration as it is a transition of life that Native people celebrate.

Jack Soto, Cocopah Tribe of Arizona and Navajo, senior program manager at American Indian College Fund for career readiness and employment said that the virtual Indigenous commencement also unexpectedly allowed non-Native people across the country to take part in the event.

“It’s interesting to see how many of them are congratulating students that they don’t even know, that’s kind of cool just because I don’t think we have ever thought about doing that,” he said.

Soto said it’s important to showcase Native student’s achievements and reinforce the message of Natives seeking a higher education and graduating school. Additionally he said it helps organizations like the American Indian College Fund to assess and be innovative with their services.

“We have the capacity to share it with the full country to demonstrate there is a really strong community of people and students who are coming together,” he said.

And he said while the relationship between the Indigenous Education Inc. the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the American Indian Graduate Center has always been present and strong, the pandemic has united them to become active partners.

“There’s never been a visible opportunity to sort of move it forward in the way it’s moving forward,” he said. “I won’t say that it’s a new thing but it definitely is probably one of the first times where it’s been highlighted that we’re actually working together.”

People have praised the commencement as uniting the Native community together and some say this gives Native students a platform to honor their culture.

“I absolutely love how this graduation allows long hair, braids, regalia, moccasins...everything Indigenous,” Chiello Rose wrote in a post.


What: Virtual Indigenous Commencement
Day: Friday, May 1
Time: 12 p.m. Mountain Time
Where: Virtual Indigenous Commencement Facebook page via the watch party feature
Social media: The hashtags #2020NativeGrad and #dearNativeGraduates can be used to congratulate the 2020 class

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