Student Loans, Big Decisions, and Staying Hungry: Advice for Graduates
We are firmly in graduation season. All of my graduations happened at least a decade ago, so I barely remember them. I do vaguely remember my law school graduation—I was at a crossroads in my life, facing HUGE student loans and not wanting to simply toil my life away at a large law firm making some ridiculously rich people even richer. That whole time in my life was stressful and I made some big decisions; those decisions turned out right, but could’ve easily blown up in my face.
One decision I made was that money was not going to determine my career; my career was going to be serving Native people. Therefore, I went to work for a bus pass and about seventeen bucks a week at the National Congress of American Indians (I jokes…it was actually $25).
Despite not eating the entire time I was at NCAI, I formed many meaningful relationships that I still treasure to this day. I’m thankful for that, and I’m thankful for the Native folks at NCAI (and really anyplace) that remember why they are far away from home and are zealously advocating for Natives. I’m also thankful that the time in DC allowed me—a young, irrelevant, rez-boy punk lawyer—to work directly with many of the folks making policy in DC. Anybody who knows me knows that I don’t like the DC political scene. I love DC, but hate when folks—Native and otherwise—lose track of why they’re out there and instead start to think they’re out there simply to be out there. Wearing suits and stuff. I watched many well-meaning people stop focusing on the Native people they are supposed to represent, and instead just focus the prestige of a DC gig. Many Natives lose their connection to their homelands, if indeed they ever had a connection. And some view being Native as simply a gimmick to attract business.
But I digress.
During that same time, I also was fortunate enough to meet some people who were truly out there to make a difference. I met folks who couldn’t wait to get back to their homelands, but they dutifully continued to serve far away from home. I consider these folks to be my “big brothers and sisters,” folks who are amazing at what they do, look out for me (and others) and have their heart solidly with Native people. They showed a lot of love to a broke Native kid and they didn’t have to. Some of those folks include Wilson Pipestem, Todd Araujo, Big Ernie Stevens (after he stopped wanting to beat me up, which I deserved, but that’s a story for another day), Holly Cook Macarro, Jackie Johnson, Jamie Gomez, Steve Hill, and Walter Lamar, amongst others.
All those experiences and relationships came as a result of taking the road less traveled and not letting money dictate my decisions. My family was (and still is) a struggling rez family, so simply taking the money was tempting. Yet, I lost entirely too many loved ones early in life and that taught me that life can be short, and powerful memories and doing something positive in that short time is probably more important than money.
Which brings me to graduations.
I planned to go to Haskell’s graduation ceremony. I love Haskell, and my big brother Ernie was kind enough to ask me to come. I can’t go. I will, however, be speaking at a few other graduation ceremonies, and I’m thankful for that. I’d love to have the chance to talk to all of the Native graduates to hug you and support you. Still, since I cannot speak to every Native student graduating from all levels of education, here’s
10 12 things I would tell all of you if I could:
1) Congratulations little sisters and little brothers. You worked hard. Breathe for a minute.
2) You earned this. Good job—they don’t give those diplomas and degrees out easily (most Americans do not have a degree).
3) Money is necessary but overrated. Don’t be a prostitute—do something you really want to do. It may be hard to believe but your precious time is the commodity, not money.
4) Be careful. There will be people that try to convince you that you are special because you are an "educated Native person." They will ask you how you "made it out," as if our homelands are horrible places that we must have escaped from. This is a divide-and-conquer technique intended to alienate you from your people.
5) Native people do not resent white man’s education—that is a myth. Our people resent assholes who think they are smarter than everyone.
6) You are not the first smart Skin—your education does not make you smarter than anyone else within our communities. Our ancestors have survived for thousands of years, in much harsher conditions than we can imagine, without formal educations. You and I would die in those conditions. They didn’t. They didn’t need degrees to prove their intelligence—our survival proved their intelligence.
7) You did not get that diploma/degree by yourself—don’t kid yourself. Yes, you worked…but our ancestors, by faith, provided the infrastructure where you would be assured educational opportunities. They laid the groundwork. We stand on their shoulders.
8) Simply “getting an education” does not help Native people. Native people getting an education only helps if we involve ourselves in our communities and work for the most vulnerable amongst us.
9) Indigenous education is focused on the survival of the collective, white man’s education is focused on the success of the individual. If we don’t center our educations around our communities, we become just like every other non-Native with an education. The world does not need a bunch of brown white people.
10) As a result of numbers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, all of us fortunate enough to get white man-educated have an obligation to continue this legacy of helping our people get stronger collectively.
11) Enjoy the summer. Chop some wood for some elders. Take a language class. Go take some young Native kids hiking. Get out of the city for a second. Community education is just as important to the Indigenous soul as any classroom.
12) Don’t have unprotected sex. Just don’t, generally. But really don’t now…child support will cost you more now than it did when you were a broke student.
Good job—you are the best. You’ve overcome great odds and are modern day warriors. You have centuries of our people cheering for you. If I can help, please let me know.