Willie Begay
Pictured, from left, are Alvia Begay, Evan Adams, and graduate Alina Begay. Evan Adams spoke to Native graduates at Honor Day June 7 at Portland State University.

'Smoke Signals' Actor Addresses Native Grads at Portland State


You may remember him as one of the stars of Sherman Alexie’s movie Smoke Signals, but Evan Adams is more than an actor. He’s also a medical doctor and Deputy Provincial Health Officer with the Ministry of Health.

He drew laughs and applause recounting a conversation with an elder about starring in a movie while being in medical school during his commencement address to Native graduates at Portland State University.

“The point of the exercise was not to get an A, not to get a degree, not to be better than others or to be rich. She showed me her whole life was about being a good person, year after year, decade after decade that as much as I thought I was a smart and brilliant doctor, that the goal was to be the best possible person who would look after others until the last moment,” Adams, who is Coast Salish from the Sliammon Band. “So I dare you, all of you, to do your very best with what you have. And that is very Indian.”

Honor Day has been held every year since 1994 at Portland State University. It’s a way for Native American, Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students to honor their culture and share graduation with family. This year's celebration was held June 7. Students were honored with traditional blessings, drum songs, and the presentation of Pendleton blankets and leis at the University's Native American Student and Community Center.

This year there were 413 Native American or Alaska Native students and 165 Pacific Islander students at Portland State University.

“It’s encouraging to see the number of our Native students more than double since 1994,” said Dean Azule, coordinator of the university’s Native American Student Support Services, in a release.

“I left the reservation with no real awareness of the inequities in the world—the appalling disparities of health, wealth, and opportunity that millions of people face. But being around so much energy and intelligence is truly inspiring,” said Larrita Riggs, who earned her degree in child and family services. She plans to return to her family’s home on the Diné reservation in Arizona. “College has been exciting, intimidating, sometimes even discouraging, but it has always been challenging, in a good way. It’s been an amazing privilege—and though I am still learning—I’ve been transformed by my experiences at Portland State University.”

Watch Evan Adams give his full speech below:

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