Wyoming Indian High School says farewell to 19 graduatesBy Ron Feemster May 21, 2013
At Wyoming Indian High School on Sunday afternoon, the community celebrated more than the 19 graduates and the promise of their unfolding lives. From the opening fancy dancer to the closing drumbeat, it was a tapestry of rituals in the tribal and ceremonial way of life that sustains the school.
The festivities began with Eagle Drum, a group of players from the ages of about 10 to older than 60, pounding out the beat as Keegan Her Many Horses, a rising senior in feathered fancy-dance regalia, danced his way into the gymnasium. He was followed by flag bearers who marched the American, Northern Arapaho and state flags into the gymnasium accompanied by the high wailing notes of the Flag Song.
The festivities were opened with a formal prayer and what one might call a grateful, good-natured homily on the virtues of perseverance.
“Some of you made it through a lot of obstacles to get where you are today,” Phil Garhart, the Wyoming Indian High School principal told the 19 graduates seated before him in their tribal regalia. “You will meet naysayers who say you won’t make it. Remember who you are and where you come from.”
Garhart went on to call out individual students whose achievements included academic survival, seemingly against the odds. To Alvin Spoonhunter, a state champion on the basketball court and the 1600 meters, he offered a final reminder that you have to do the work in class if you want to play. To Stephen Headley, he spoke as to the prodigal son: “You made my day when you came back.” And to Joey Aragon, another anchor of the outstanding basketball team, “You and I have had a lot of heart-to-hearts.” Aragon’s head drooped for just a moment. Then he sat up straight. A graduate.
There was no shame, no finger pointing. But the message was clear. You made it. You met expectations. We hope you learned from doing it the hard way.
The festivities lightened when Tianna Redman, the salutatorian, ascended the podium to give her speech. She thanked several generations of her family and congratulated her friends and classmates. But the heart of her speech was a lesson she learned from her grandfather, Alfred Redman: “Never give up.”
After he thanked his family and mentors, valedictorian Donald Clifford, Jr. echoed the hopes of many tribal elders in the gymnasium, who wait to see if the students will succeed in higher education and become the next generation of leaders on the reservation.
“Always remember to come back and help your tribe,” he said in the briefest speech of the day. “Never be a burden on your family.”
The keynote speaker was Debra Parker, vice chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes in northwestern Washington. Active in the drive to pass the Violence Against Women Act, she recounted standing next to President Barack Obama when he signed the historic bill.
But at the center of her speech was more encouragement to bear up under hard times. Adversity, she told the graduates, can make you stronger.
“Everything you have ever witnessed, both good and bad, has helped to bring you to where you are today,” she said. “Life is not perfect. It wasn’t for me, your parents, grandparents, and it will not be for you. But either way, we will get through this together and definitely have some fun along the way.”
An audio slide show presented eight or 10 photographs of each senior from baby and toddler pictures to sports shots and senior photos. Rousing cheers and shrill whistles greeted the name of every student flashed on the screen.
After scholarships were presented to outstanding graduates and the class presented gifts to Parker and a tribal elder, the students finally marched across the stage to receive their diplomas. The school district also gave every graduate a laptop computer. Parents and grandparents stood in the aisle to snap pictures of the big moment.
The ceremonies ended as they began, with the drum group singing. This time it was the Honor Song for the graduates.
As friends, family and well-wishers gathered to walk the receiving line and congratulate the new graduates, Donald Clifford, Jr., the valedictorian, was asked what advice he could give to the classes behind him.
“Do the work,” he said with a shrug. “Stay in school.”
— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected]
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