All images courtesy Gyasi Ross.

Student Loans, Big Decisions, and Staying Hungry: Advice for Graduates

Gyasi Ross
May 09, 2013

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.  


Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation Enrolled/Suquamish Nation Immersed
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi




Lila M. Parton's picture
Lila M. Parton
Submitted by Lila M. Parton on

I graduated in January 1984, and could not make it back to Haskell go walk down that aisle and receive my diploma. I also graduated from Northwest Indian College, Tacoma Branch, and guess what, could not make it to Bellingham and march up that aisle, here I was a divorced Gram and proud of my accomplishments, seeing the info on Haskell brings back many fond memories. I arrived there by greyhound bus, had $20.00 to my name...and turned out the best years of my life!!

DanielM's picture
Submitted by DanielM on

Why rack up thousands of dollars in student loans when you can get an honorary doctorate from a California school for just a $69 donation? It's called LADC Institute, google it!

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on

Wonderful advice daughter of the people. It's so easy to be seduced by those big salaries after graduating with a nice degree, but you know, it's NOT what we are about my friends, we have to keep paying it forward & make our people proud of our sacrifices & theirs as well for the support they gave us during so many hungry years in school. If it wasn't for all the support among our people, we would NOT have survived & made it to graduation.

We owe everything we have first, to the Creator, secondly to our family & First Nation family. Our ancestors made it possible for us to get this education & use it to fight for our people, using the washichu's very laws against them when we are fighting for our people's many causes near & far alike. Our ancestors fought, suffered & at times died for our rights to the freedoms & beliefs we still have the honor of having today.

Never forget who & what made your education & bright future possible brothers & sisters of our extended First Nations people: The Great Spirit, your parents, ancestors & First Nation people. Give back my friends & help the next generation achieve even more for our people. Make them proud in a good way, giving thanks to Man Above for His many, many gifts & blessings to us all.

Angie_S_Spartan's picture
Submitted by Angie_S_Spartan on

Gyasi, I hear what you're saying. But here's what I struggle with. It's pretty much been beat into my head "Go to school, then come back and work for your tribe." I almost felt as if it was a duty. So that's what I did. And now that I've come back to give back, I get treated like crap. Countless times, I have applied for positions that required a degree of some sort, but was passed over for someone who did not have a degree, but have been working here for much longer (I used to keep the rejection letters, but have since stopped because it was too numerous and was bringing an air of negativity I didn't need to carry around). I have also come to the realization that my tribe will never put a woman in the position of CEO (although if you'd ask them, they'd never admit that my sex was the reason), even though I have more eductation than any of the past 5 or 6 CEO's that we've hired. Some of them not even tribal members (I can take getting passed over for a tribal member who's worked for 25 years in gaming, I can't take getting passed over for a white dude with less education who just happens to be a man and that's why he got it). I finally decided to further my education, and will be receiving my MBA from Michigan State University in 11 months. And my only option, is to go be to go "wear a suit", helping some rich folks get richer. I can't make a decent living here for my tribe because of attitudes, politics, and my guess is jealousy. But if I had NOT gone to school, and just settled for working here as soon as I turned 18, then I would have no problem getting a decent job. Your thoughts here USED to be my thoughts, when I first left to go get my bachelors degree. Now that I've done that, come back and tried to help my tribe, I'm being driven away to go do the unthinkable. But unfortunately I'm left with no choice.

Devyn Dennison's picture
Devyn Dennison
Submitted by Devyn Dennison on


forbiss's picture
Submitted by forbiss on

To Angie_S_Spartan.
Comments here findthe depth of discouragement. If you read this & are willing to discuss, listen to suggestions, maybe I can help. Chk Twitter, @danwenzeh for quick contact, then onto private emails. Unless, joyfully, you have found what you want. Best...

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

I wish you all the luck in the world, Gyasi! You're a talented writer and an you obviously have your head on straight. Your life henceforth will contain many, many tribulations which are thankfully NOT related to being Native. Of course the ones that sting the most will come from those to whom your race makes you a target.

Good luck and I hope you continue writing - it would be cool to keep up with you here.

AZ NDN's picture
Submitted by AZ NDN on

I like the fact that I earned a degree in the white man's education /curriculum. I QUIT school in the 10th grade. I was picked on and ridiculed by my own family, all my siblings graduated from high school. I obtained a GED and received my certificate in the mail. I went to a local community college and did not attend graduation because I needed to work. I received my AA degree in the mail, with an award for being Student of the Year, from my area, if I had gone I would have received special recognition from the college. My mother was very disappointed about this. Then I went on to a University and graduated... I took my mother to this Graduation, One: because she was a graduate from the same college, Two: because she said she wanted to see at least one of her kids graduate college, Three: because this was a huge graduation, you needed binoculars to see across the stadium, Four: a promise I had made to my father before he died. . . Oh and by the way, at that time, of all my brothers and sisters I was the only one who graduated from college. They don't pick on me and rididule me any more.

phillipespinoza's picture
Submitted by phillipespinoza on

I think Angie's comment poses a really interesting counter and reality check to this address to Native Graduates made by Gyasi. Higher education as it exists today in Indian Country and in larger society has definitely evolved into something much different than it was even 10 years ago. And as much as we would like to place Natives into so monolith of an identity where we are encouraged only to think one way ("the Indian way"), I think it's more "Indian" if you will be veer away from such tendencies and encourage our youth to chase whatever dreams they have but most importantly take care of themselves and their families. As much as we would like to think of tribes as extensions of our families the truth is nowadays our own tribes and tribal members can be the biggest deterrents to any kind of progress, both for the tribe and for yourself as an individual. In this case, I think the advice that mandates community/tribal involvement would be actually counterproductive to the well-being of the individuals that would actually be able to help the tribe. Instead, I think an encouragement to remember our connection to our land and therefore our people would be a better approach as it would allow individual tribal members to pursue whatever career path they would be most productive in, without feeling any shame or guilt for doing so which would allow a more willing and positive giving-back to their community in the best way they can (through their chosen career path). By enforcing this idea that every Indian must work for Indians, you are perpetuating the dangerous mentality that prevents Natives from going to college in the first place. I believe we should encourage our Youth to be whatever they want to be and to do so without any fear of what others (including and maybe even especially what other Indians) might think of them. With this, we give them the guidance of the spirit of their ancestors to have them ultimately choose the right path for them and for their People.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Any among us, who have interest in Education for our families, whether they are Native Americans or not should contact their State Senators and their Congressman and tell them not to double the interest rates on Students Loans this coming July. I know there are two deciding plans-one by Obama which freezes the loans for the life of the loans and the other plan by Republicans which makes the loans go up and down depending on the Treasury Interest Rates which are low right now but with inflation (which is bound to happen) and would raise the rates as those T-bills go up. Tell them "No" to any rate hikes for Student loans especially, don't double the cost of going to College for our kids.