Graduation 001This is the full text of the remarks delivered last week by Newcomb teacher, Guila Curley, during the graduation ceremony for Newcomb’s Class of 2017.
Ya’at’eeh! Shi ei Guila Curley yinishye. Tabaaha nishli, Bilagaana Bashishchiin, Honaghaanii da shichei, Bilagaana da shinali. Tiisndeezhgiizh dee naasha.
I want to extend my greetings to all present here. School Board members, Superintendent Bowman, District Administrators, Building Administrators, Distinguished guests in the audience, parents, grandparents, extended family of the graduates, my own parents, Marjorie and Frank Irwin, my own family, Randy, Deshayne, Niayla and Draven, and of course our Class of 2017.
Graduation 002I am honored to be up here giving this commencement speech and I will be honest, I tried to say no when the students asked me to speak for them. I didn’t do it to be rude, instead I tried to encourage them to bring someone famous to speak to them! After much prodding by the graduates and the class sponsor, I agreed. I have to say that this is a tremendous honor and I do not take this task lightly-which was my initial reason for saying no. I am very humbled that they would ask me to speak-so much so that I struggled with what to say. I even posted on Facebook, “What could I say that would be different, better, than what I have said to these students over and over for the past four years?” I mean who am I? What do I know? Over and over the same thing came up…I am just like you. I attended these schools just like you, I walked these halls just like you, sat in these classrooms just like you and eventually graduated from here, just like you.
Graduation 003One of my dreams has come true and one of my goals accomplished. I have finally become the type of role model I have been working hard to be my entire life. When I was younger, many people would call me a role model, but I didn’t know what I was doing then. I didn’t understand the implications of being a role model. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do? When I got older, especially after I had children, I understood I was supposed to model exactly what I wanted them to become, not just sometimes, but all the time. Children are always watching, they learn by watching, they become exactly what you show them to be. The same is true for students. As a teacher, I know you are watching me, and that keeps me on my toes, but also encourages me to model what I would want you to become. I can only hope I do that every day in my job.
I want to share a poem with you by Luci Tapahonso that will hopefully set the tone for the words I will share with you next.
It Has Always Been This Way
for Lori and Willie Edmo
Being born is not the beginning.
Life begins months before the time of birth.
Inside the mother, the baby floats in warm fluid.
and she is careful not to go near noisy or evil places.
She will not cut meat or take part in the killing of food.
Navajo babies were always protected in these ways.
The baby is born and cries out loud,
and the mother murmurs and nurtures the baby.
A pinch of pollen on the baby's tongue
for strong lungs and steady growth.
The belly button dries and falls off.
It is buried near the house so the child
will always return home and help the mother.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
Much care is taken to shape the baby's head well
and to talk and sing to the baby softly in the right way.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
The baby laughs aloud and it is celebrated with rock salt,
lots of food, and relatives laughing.
Everyone passes the baby around.
This is so the child will always be generous,
will always be surrounded by happiness,
and will always be surrounded by lots of relatives.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
The child starts school and leaves with a pinch of pollen
on top of her head and on her tongue.
This is done so the child will think clearly,
listen quietly, and learn well away from home.
The child leaves home with prayers and good thoughts.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
This is how we were raised.
We were raised with care and attention
because it has always been this way.
It has worked well for centuries.
You are here.
Your parents are here.
Your relatives are here.
We are all here together.
It is all this: the care, the prayers, songs,
and our own lives as Navajos we carry with us all the time.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
Graduation 004I have not done everything that I want to do in life, but I have done many things. I went off to college right after high school and I went across the country to a school I knew almost nothing about. I have told you all many times before how scary that was and STILL is to even think about. It was far away, it was expensive, it was rich and it was white. Everything opposite of me. I also went into a very white, very male branch of the military, again everything I was not. After both of these accomplishments, I earned my Master’s degree. None of these things were easy. Every single step of the way, I had to figure out a way to be STRONG despite all of the obstacles being thrown my way. I had to “dig deep” as I tell my runners. Inside my heart, I had to want to accomplish my goals more than anything else that was trying to distract me. I also needed help. I needed my family, my prayers, my teachers. One thing that kept me going the most was remembering home. I was accomplishing these things so that I could go home.
Graduation 005I wanted to come home for several reasons; this is where I have always wanted to raise my family. I have always wanted to come home and serve the young people in my community in some capacity and I also wanted to prove that someone from here could do it. When it comes to Newcomb and the surrounding communities, people talk down to us and speak badly about us. But we know better. We know that our communities are special, To Sidoh To Altsisi and Tse Aslnaozt'ii are known for their horsemanship, Tohaali and Bis Dah Litso are known for their weavers, Tiisndeezhgiizh is known for their farmlands, Tiis Tsoh Sik’aad is known for their ancient natural habitats, Tooh Haaltsooi is known for their sand paintings and arts and crafts, and Nahaschidi is known for their ranching. And we are all protected and sustained by the strong Chooshgai mountains. We are an intelligent, strong, and worthy people. But we also have our problems. Our communities suffer from the violence of gangs, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, abuse, and broken homes. Which is why you are so important.
Graduation 006Our stories tell of these of monsters that had to be killed off by the twin warriors in order for our people to survive. YOU are our modern day warriors and your people need you. Did you know that: “For every one hundred native students who begin ninth grade in the United States, forty-eight will graduate high school. Of those forty-eight, twenty will continue in some sort of higher education institution: technical college, community or tribal college, four-year college or university. One will graduate within six years with a four-year degree. Native America produces one MA for every twenty-five hundred people, and one PhD for every seven thousand.”
I got this information reading a book about Native American students in higher education the other day and those numbers were ASTOUNDING to me. How do we go from 100 students to 48% finishing high school and then only 1 finishing college? Our people deserve to get an education, it is essential that our people become educated. It is necessary for YOU to change this. Your people need you. Your communities need you. And guess what? It’s all up to you. Our grandparents and parents say, “T’aa hwo aajit’eego” YOU have to be the ones to do it. We will all be here to help you along the way, your teachers, your parents, your family and friends. But we can’t do it for you. We can’t go to school for you, we can’t get a job for you, we can’t do your homework or take your tests for you, we can’t speak for you in class or in an interview. It will be all up to you. And you can do it, because your families and ancestors have been praying for you since before you were born. That is the strength of our people, it has always been that way. It is why we still exist today despite all the efforts to spiritually, physically and historically annihilate us. You must continue your education, gather your weapons and make a better world for our people. Annie Dodge Wauneka had a term for certain people. She called them “do-for-me” people those that expect things be done for them things to be paid for them without working for it. Instead, be a “do-for-others” person. Those that need the help will still get it, but those that are able will be doing for themselves. This is how a community thrives.
Graduation 008Our Dine Educational philosophy, Sa’ah Naaghai Bek’eh Hozhoon, expresses our understanding of our purpose here on Mother Earth. We begin as infants in the east with Nistahkees “thinking”, then we move to the south in our adolescence and begin the planning stage, Nahat’a. That is where you are now. You are on the cusp of moving from adolescence into adulthood or life in the west, Iina. This is where you live out your aspirations and then begin to fulfill the hopes and dreams of those that came before you. That is where you are going next. We, as Dine, enter the last stage of our lives in the north as elders. Where we reach “Siih hasin” or a level of understanding and wisdom that only comes with living a full life. This is where we teach others all that we have learned and with hope and prayers express gratitude and faith in the next generation. In today’s world we have to learn to straddle two worlds. The white, contemporary world and the Dine, traditional world. In order to succeed in either one, and especially both, we need to be lifelong learners. Chief Manuelito said it best, “My grandchild, the whites have many things which we Navajos need. But we cannot get to them. It is as though the whites were in a grassy canyon and there they have wagons, plows, and plenty of food. We Navajos are up on a dry mesa. We can hear them talking but we cannot get to them. My grandchild, education is the ladder, tell our people to take it.” I am 5th generation descendant of Chief Manuelito. As his grandchild, I am telling you to climb the ladder of education. Not just in the white world, but in our own Dine world as well. Learn the language of higher education, but learn Dine Bizaad as well. Learn to read complicated textbooks, but also learn our songs and ceremonies. You are the generation that can save them.
Understand that it won’t be an easy road, but one filled with potholes, obstacles, and tribulations. Know that nothing will happen the way you want it until you do it yourself. You won’t be rich right after high school, you won’t own a car right after high school, you won’t buy a mansion right after high school. But you can eventually achieve these things with hard work and dedication. At the same time, don’t forget where you came from, the people you represent. I took a lot of things for granted growing up, my parents, my privilege, my intelligence. But now, I understand their worth and the importance of giving back. My family used to teach me, “Wherever you go, remember you represent us, whatever you do, people will say, oh you are so and so’s daughter, so and so’s granddaughter and they will think of us if you don’t act the way you are supposed to” Remember that as you go out into the world. Remember your people. Remember that they prayed for you and hoped and dreamed for you. Remember that they need you. Need you to uplift our people.
Rise up and fly high Skyhawks!