Billy Mills implores Haskell graduates to lead community healing

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Post updated at 7:02 p.m. Friday, May 3:

Olympian Billy Mills said he believes this year’s class of Haskell Indian Nations University graduates will lead the healing of generational trauma in their communities.

Mills, Oglala Lakota, served as the keynote commencement ceremony speaker Friday morning. 

When Haskell was a high school — then-Haskell Institute — Mills was a student there. Haskell was a residential boarding school prior to that. Mills spoke Friday about the “Seventh Generation,” saying these current Haskell students are part of the seventh generation removed from institutions actively stealing Native children from their homes and stripping them of their cultures and identities.

“Your voice, the voice of our seventh generation and those that follow, must be heard,” Mills told them. “I challenge you to take the footprints of our history with you.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times United States Olympian Billy Mills gives his keynote speech.

Mills still remains the only American male to win a gold medal in the Olympic 10,000-meter run. While attending the University of Kansas, he was a three-time NCAA All-American cross-country runner. In 2018, the Lawrence school district renamed Billy Mills Middle School in his honor.

He said he dared to dream throughout his life, leading with the strength of his ancestors. He hopes the same for Haskell graduates, he told them.

Jaylon Romine, citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and past Haskell Brave 2023-24, said in his speech that he remembers being a teenager seeking a way to turn his life around. And Haskell became that mechanism. Now he’s determined to uplift his community, specifically with plans to attend law school and advocate for tribal nation sovereignty in his home state.

“I believe that this university is a catalyst for young Indigenous minds,” Romine said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jaylon Romine gives his speech.

He said stories he heard growing up weren’t just stories.

“I have many relatives in the audience that believe that they will turn to the stars someday,” Romine said. “I’ve imagined that the stories seem crazy to early European settlers. But now they’ve confirmed to me that human beings are made up of stardust. We knew that we come from the stars and they are just finding it out.”

Haskell’s spring 2024 and summer 2024 graduates were surrounded by family, friends, faculty, staff and community members inside Coffin Sports Complex on campus Friday.

Haskell President Frank Arpan’s resounding message was one of joy. Arpan, Yankton Sioux Tribe, told graduates he didn’t have any profound advice to drop in their ears; he just wanted them to celebrate.

“All of these people are here for you today. Take this day, enjoy that second piece of cake, have that 10th piece of fry bread,” he said, followed by laughter throughout the crowd.

Arpan announced Savannah Nieshe and invited her onstage to be recognized as Haskell’s 2023-24 Student of the Year. Besides maintaining a 4.0 GPA, the Student of the Year “demonstrates high integrity” and embodies “invaluable character,” Arpan said. Nieshe graduated with a degree in Indigenous and American Indian studies.

Additionally, the American Indian College Fund (AICF), a nonprofit organization that provides financial support to Native American students, at the end of each year awards one Haskell student for their accomplishments and contributions to the school. Arpan named Justine Butterfield, Navajo Nation, the 2024 AICF Student of the Year and also invited her on stage for recognition. Butterfield graduated with a degree in elementary education.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Justine Butterfield, at center, is announced as the AICF Student of the Year.

More than 120 students participated in Friday’s ceremony, being recognized with degrees in arts-media communication, social work, Indigenous and American Indian studies, environmental science and more.

Cole Brings Plenty was set to graduate from Haskell Friday with a degree in communication studies. On April 5, Brings Plenty, 27, was found deceased in Johnson County after going missing for days. His family was present Friday as a designated person walked across the stage in his honor and accepted his diploma for him.

Before sending the graduates off to celebrate with loved ones, Student Government Association President Wyomee Cooke, Diné, reminded them of who their accomplishments make proud: themselves and their entire communities.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Wyomee Cooke emceed Friday’s commencement ceremony.

The 2024 Commencement Powwow is set for Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4, at the Coffin Sports Complex. Grand Entry will be at 7 p.m. Friday and 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $5 per session or $10 for a two-day pass.

Learn more about the powwow on a flyer posted to Haskell’s Facebook page.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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