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Haaland, national leaders stress importance of history and representation during Haskell commencement ceremony

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U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called the graduates who attended Friday morning’s commencement ceremony at Haskell Indian Nations University “a dream that our ancestors had.”

More than 60 students attended the event, with family and friends filling the stands of Coffin Sports Complex. The ceremony was also livestreamed on Facebook by the university’s newspaper, the Haskell Indian Leader.

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Haaland presented the commencement address following short presentations by Tony Dearman, Bureau of Indian Affairs Education Director, and Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs.

Members of the Haskell administration joined dignitaries conferring degrees on the platform. They included Interim President Julia Good Fox and Frank Arpan, who introduced himself as vice president of academics, though his appointment had not been announced to media as of Friday morning.

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks to Haskell graduates.

Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary when she was appointed in March 2021.

“Each of you is a dream that our ancestors had when they fought famine and drought, displacement and the terrible assimilation policies of the past centuries,” she said. “We need more people leading who understand struggle, who understand persistence and know what it means to be fierce in the face of difficulty, who have resilience and power running through their veins, who can bring their whole selves to the jobs they do and be a morals compass for leadership in our country. We need you.”

The ceremony was the first that the university held in person after more than two years of online classes and distance learning at Haskell.

Dearman congratulated students on their “day of celebration,” and asked them to be fearless as they so out into the world.

“We are all proud of you. Always be proud of who you are and where you come from,” he said. “You should go confidently forward and never be afraid to make a mistake or worry about failure. What you learn from your mistakes is what makes the difference.”

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Haskell graduates listen to speakers during commencement.

In his speech, Newland acknowledged what students had endured during the pandemic.

“We know the pandemic has made your journey through Haskell very difficult,” he said. “That makes today’s graduation a little extra special.”

Newland also discussed a report on American Indian boarding schools that was released by the Department of the Interior on Wednesday. The report found that more than 500 students nationwide died in the schools between 1869 and 1969. Haskell opened in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training School for children in first though fifth grades. The school became a high school by the 1920s, and in 1970 became a junior college. The university was established in 1993.

Today, Haskell maintains a cemetery holding more than 100 boarding school students who died between 1885 and 1943. Newland said it was important for graduates to remember that history as they reflect on their own.

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, speaks to the Haskell Indian Nations University graduating class.

“Despite the dark origins of Haskell, the Haskell of today has empowered countless Native people across Indian Country to build better futures for their communities and for future generations,” he said. “You are all now part of the legacy of this institution and the graduates who came before you who went into the world to serve their people, their country, and the world. Remember the dreams that you made here and be ready to follow them through.”

Haaland, who detailed her journey from being a high school graduate adrift to a becoming a single mother and law school graduate, also discussed the importance of remembering that Haskell evolved from being a tool to divide Native families and assimilate their children, into being an institution that produces leaders.

She called the intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools “heartbreaking and undeniable.”

“I look at the name on this university and cannot help but reflect that we stand on the campus of a man who sought to assimilate us,” Haaland said. “Like many of you I come from ancestors who endured the federal Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead. We must shed light on the traumas of the past. Step by step, we’re making progress toward healing.”

Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Members of Haskell Indian Nations University’s graduating class listen to Deb Haaland speak at commencement.

Graduate Nizhoni Thomas is a member of the Navajo Nation who came to Haskell from Flagstaff, Arizona. She earned her bachelor of science in business administration and hopes one day to open her own daycare business.

Thomas was a member of the basketball team that went to the national championship tournament this spring. After two years away from campus life, she was happy to have the opportunity to end her Haskell career in person.

“It’s exciting to come back after two years of being online,” she said. “It was especially nice to get to have a graduation.”

Choctaw Nation member Lydia Dean is the third of three sisters to graduate from Haskell. A brother attended as well. Dean earned her associate degree in social work, and has been given a full scholarship to study the Choctaw language at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.

Her father, Albert Dean, said it was important to establish a tradition of education and to be a mentor to younger people who might not see a clear path in education.

“It’s been a family affair for sure,” he said. “It’s a big deal to demonstrate what’s possible. I’m very proud, very grateful, and very thankful for all the opportunities at Haskell.”

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Haaland also expressed the importance of setting an example and becoming a leader.

She told graduates they couldn’t stay on the sidelines because they have the potential to change the world.

“Representation matters,” Haaland said. “You matter. Today I challenge each of you to use your education to build a better world for those who come after you and for those whose voices are being drowned out by noise. Leaving the ladder down behind you for the next generation to climb is one of the most important things you can do to ensure cultures and traditions are protected for future generations.

“We come from people who survived insurmountable odds. That’s not something to be taken lightly.”

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Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Rebecca Villalobos, Student Government Association President, speaks to Haskell’s graduating class.
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Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Rhonda LeValdo introduces Deb Haaland.
Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, waves to attendees as she prepares to speak at the Haskell Indian Nations University commencement on May 13, 2022.
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Carter Gaskins / The Lawrence Times Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, speaks at the Haskell Indian Nations University commencement on May 13, 2022.
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Andrea Albright (she/her), reporter, can be reached at aalbright (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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