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2011 UTTC Commencement
New Traditions Within Old Tribal Customs
By Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), Vice President, Academic-Career-Technical Education
7 July 2011

      Having just completed a successful re-accreditation evaluation two weeks earlier, United Tribes Technical College enjoyed another outstanding commencement ceremony on Friday, May 6 in the Wicahpi Isnala (Lone Star) arena.

      The ceremonies prompted observations and remarks about today’s Tribal college graduations, merging new graduation traditions within old Tribal customs. MC Dennis Renville reminded us that sometimes we take these for granted.

Grand Entry at the 2011 United Tribes Commencement Ceremony DENNIS J. NEUMANN United Tribes News

      Where, for example, will you see mainstream ceremonies lead off with the procession of American Indian veteran color guards stepping in rhythm with the drum beat? Many Tribal cultures have always honored those who served to protect the people and their homelands.

      Behind the military veterans were the students and staff that make up the fabric of our Tribal college community. Yes, there were Native and non-Native people dancing. One doesn’t necessarily have to be Native to participate and celebrate in Tribal college ceremonies. Some observers made note of this.

      Commencement speaker William Mendoza (Oglala/Sicangu Lakota) talked about his experiences as a student at three Tribal colleges. A former basketball athlete, he confessed that his educational intentions weren’t as serious as they needed to be. This day, however, he stood before UTTC graduates, humble and wiser in the Lakota way of “ikce wicasa” (common man). Bill is the interim executive director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. He’s also working on his doctorate at Montana State University. What a role model!

      Several years ago, the UTTC leadership promoted the tradition of caps and gowns among graduates and staff. For many, this symbolizes their accomplishments in higher education on par with other colleges and universities.

      UTTC board member Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Nation, pointed out what he saw from the podium: the beadwork and eagle feathers that adorned graduation attire. He mentioned the fact that some schools and colleges still deny Native American graduates the opportunity to reflect their cultural heritage at commencement. This is happening, Hall said, at a time when the state of North Dakota still resists retiring the UND “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo. The double standard is all too apparent to Tribal citizens

      This graduation event was poignant and somewhat emotional for Myra Pearson, who will be stepping down later in May as UTTC board chair and as Tribal chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Tribe. She thanked the students, staff and faculty for their roles in making her board colleagues look good.

      Myra’s sincerity and humility were profound, a contrast to the sometimes very obvious protocols displayed among VIPs at other commencement ceremonies. She and UTTC president David Gipp made sure everyone were given the opportunity to speak.

      Another distinctive feature of a TCU graduation, beautiful star quilts were placed on students as they received their diplomas. Relatives and faculty alike stepped up and showered their special graduates with gifts, honoring the struggles and accomplishments in typical Tribal tradition.

      These were the some of the moments and scenes of the 2011 UTTC commencement. One could attend other graduations and not see the special blend of new traditions integrated with old Tribal customs.

      We offer our thanks to the graduation committee, past and present, for doing this and presenting another outstanding commencement event.

      Graduates, we hope you’ll cherish these memories always!


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