Graduations Honor Students and Celebrate Culture

Feb 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 4-4: The Pattern of Language, Tribal College News

Elizabeth Dennis receiving an honorary degree from Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa College.

Spring is time for celebration at the tribal colleges. Hundreds of students took part in graduation ceremonies and received, along with their diplomas, hugs and cheers from loved ones.

But unlike most colleges, some graduates marched to the beat of Indian drummers, not Pomp and Circumstance while others received their diplomas wearing ribbon shirts and blue jeans, not caps and gowns.

While most tribal college gradua­tion ceremonies have the obligatory processions and commencement speeches, they also deliberately reflect each community’s unique culture. It was a time to honor not only the individual, but also the community and its traditions.

At Bay Mills Community College in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 18 graduates received associate and certificate degrees and heard David Archambault, American Indian College Fund president, give the commencement speech. But instead of Pomp and Circumstance, gradu­ates marched to the beat of the Rainbow Singers, a group of tradi­tional drummers between the ages of 14 and 16.

Fort Belknap College has a simi­lar tradition. Graduating students were led in the procession by four traditional dancers, accompanied by a slow honor song which was per­formed by a high school drum group.

At Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Wisconsin, 41 students graduated May 6 with degrees ranging from high school equivalency diplomas and child day care certification to the traditional associate of arts degree.

But honorary degrees were also awarded by the Native American Studies Department to four tribal elders who are all over the age of 90: Elizabeth Dennis, Ernest Guibord, Albert Isham and Louis Barder. Each was recognized for his or her efforts to sustain traditional culture and tribal values.

At Oglala Lakota College, 120 stu­dents graduated during ceremonies on June 27. Held outside in the tribe’s pow-wow arbor, speeches were given and, like most colleges, students got a handshake and diploma.

But according to Marty Red Bear, chair of the General Studies Department, students were more likely to wear ribbon shirts and jeans than suits or caps and gowns. And along with their degree, stu­dents had a medicine wheel tied to their hair by an elder or relative. For women, the medicine wheel includ­ed an eagle plume, while men were given an eagle feather.

According to Red Bear, the medi­cine wheel “is a symbol of unity, of wholeness, of being able to accomplish a very difficult task in life.”

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