Celebrate the Milestones
I haven’t always been certain about going back to school. I applied to college twice in my twenties, but never registered for classes. I didn’t know what to study, and in my mind, going to school needed to fulfill a very specific purpose, to act as a step in an already-determined plan for my life. Since I could not imagine myself going into a field such as medicine or law, I reasoned I couldn’t justify the expense and time of going to college.
While I am good at making plans, I am even better at pivoting—changing the plan as opportunities and challenges surface. This adaptability is how our ancestors survived, and it’s a very good skill, even when it’s accompanied by the anxiety and hyper-awareness borne of surviving trauma. So, when I was laid off at the start of the coronavirus pandemic from a job I thought I would have for a long time, my husband encouraged me to attend some classes at my local community college. “I’ll take something easy,” I thought, and found an introduction to watercolor class. But I also wanted to take botany and chemistry, and so I signed up for the remedial algebra classes I needed to make that possible. I quickly abandoned the path of “easy” and jumped into full course loads.
It wasn’t until that fall that I transferred to Northwest Indian College (NWIC), after learning about tribal colleges for the first time through the American Indian College Fund website. While I struggled to imagine completing a whole program located in another state, I was too inspired by the school and their Native environmental science program to not try.
Before this experience, I could not relate to people excited about college or feeling proud of their alma mater. I honestly couldn’t spell or pronounce “alma mater” without the help of Google. The entire world of higher education, and everything it can mean for people, was foreign to me. It makes all the sense to me now, looking back, as to why I didn’t go to school sooner. And more importantly, why going to a tribal college has been the absolute perfect thing for me.
While many conventional colleges and universities have increased their Native faculty and are offering courses relevant to contemporary Indigeneity (rather than the standard Native American history taught by white men, such as what’s offered at my local community college), there’s nothing like a tribal college for participating in higher education while being seen and supported as Native people. Not only are we recognized as Native, but what we learn and the way we do it nurtures our sense of Native identity. Being Native, after all, is a function of community. I am Potawatomi because of the community of Potawatomi people I am descended from, but also because I am recognized by that community as belonging to them. We all have various protocols for introducing ourselves, but they all include the information that makes us recognizable – our families, our ancestors, our clan(s), our tribes, our reservations, our enrollment, our hometowns. And while we represent over 500 tribal nations with their own languages, cultures, stories, histories, and protocols, we share in common the experience of Native people in North America. While we belong to our people, we get to show up as our whole selves, a thing rarely offered at an institution of higher learning.
This sense of belonging was the strongest at our recent graduation celebration. One hundred thirty-nine students graduated with a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree, and participated in NWIC’s first large commencement ceremony since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Stommish Grounds at Lummi Indian Nation hosted the gathering, which opened with traditional Lhaq’temish songs and dancing from the Lummi Blackhawk Dancers. We were joined by our elders and our children, who cheered and celebrated every single graduate. Each person who walked across the stage represented not only their own dedication and persistence in achieving their degree, but the invisible crowd of friends, colleagues, and family members who supported us through this experience. After all, we do nothing alone.
Whereas the dominant settler society values personal success and achievement over everything, Indigenous societies value the collective. Native students succeed when we can see how our efforts will be supportive of our families and communities. School becomes a tool for the fulfillment of our purpose, not simply the way to wealth or notoriety. Knowing this changes the way we consider education in a Native context, but it also allows us to celebrate the milestones we’ve accomplished thus far. Every graduate is a family and tribe that is more empowered to navigate the contemporary world. Every graduate gets us one step closer to having our professional and management ranks filled with Native people – as teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, and executives. The more we do for ourselves, the more we can do for ourselves. These efforts increase our ability to make decisions, manage our collective resources, and protect our cultural sovereignty for future generations.
I graduated this month with my associate’s degree. I didn’t think I would participate in the commencement – after all, I’m continuing my program and will hopefully graduate with my bachelor’s degree next summer. I’m also terrible at celebrating my own accomplishments. But participating in our commencement reminded me of the importance of celebrating our milestones. Each of us who have earned a degree did so despite major obstacles. As of last year, 19% of Native Americans aged 18 to 24 are enrolled in college, compared to 41% of the overall population. And, just 14.5% of Native people earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31.3% of the overall population (Vaisvilas, n.d.). Participating in higher education in the face of everything we are juggling is difficult, and even those closest to you can’t fully know how hard you’ve worked for this. So, to all of you graduating this summer, I offer my congratulations. And to my own family and friends, as well as the community of students and faculty at Northwest Indian College, I offer chi-miigwech, a great thank you, for all the ways you’ve supported my journey. I am made better by being a part of this community, and am motivated to honor not just my own ancestors, but the larger community of people who have made this possible for me.
Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.
Vaisvilas, F. (n.d.). Higher Education Rates for Native Americans Remain Low, But Unique Scholarships Helping. Green Bay Press-Gazette. Retrieved from https://www.nativeforward.org/2021/02/22/higher-education-rates-for-native-americans-remain-low-but-unique-scholarships-helping/