Photo by Levi Blackwolf, Wolfn Photographies
Portrait of Alia Russell, enrolled Kalispel and also Spokane Tribe and Otomi, a recent graduate of St. Edward University, by Levi Blackwolf, Wolfn Photographies

A Note to Beloved Native Graduates: Keep Up the Great Work (and Always Remember Home)

Gyasi Ross

“The thing about being an Indian person is that you feel most at home with your own people.”

Winona LaDuke


This is a great time of year—NBA Playoffs are in full swing, it’s almost strawberry season, and graduation time!  Graduation time is special for many of the families that I grew up around—our young folks finishing school represents the culmination of a lot of love, a lot of struggle and our family moving into a new era that begrudgingly appreciates the function of western/white education. 

My family is very fertile (don’t read this column too closely—things happen) so we’ve seen the educational evolution over and over for the last several generations. For many of us Native Generation X-ers, “getting educated” was kinda unchartered waters for us, a new thing.  Some of our folks had went to school a bit, but for most of us there wasn’t any legacy or blueprint of how we were going to excel at school and ultimately use it to better our own lives and our communities.  It was an important lesson to learn that school has no real significance for Native people if it’s not being used as a tool to tangibly improve our communities.  There is a delicious lie out there that is constantly floated in front of Native students—“Do for self. Get a degree and make some money for yourself and you will be the same as the privileged white people.  That is the way to equality.” 

“Forget the past.  Forget your homelands.  Forget that the majority of your people are struggling and just make things comfortable for yourself, and that’s good enough.”   

It is a lie because using education to only make a little bit of money for ourselves without any notion of history and community responsibility simply replicates White America’s individual model of success. 

That model is literally killing the world. 

I’ve worked with this current generation of Native students enough to know that you young folks know history WAY too well to fall for that lie—you are discerning and understand that this individual model of success is unsustainable and destructive to the community as well as the individual.  Scary environmental statistics (Americans produce 200 millions tons of waste every year, global warming etc.), as well as a realization that our Native ancestors sacrificed immensely so that you could have these wonderful educational opportunities creates an obligation to do what our ancestors did for us—create a road for those coming behind you. 

We simply have to play our part and do what others have done for us.  “We” is greater than “me”—that has always been our way. 

It’s cool: when I talk to Native students of this generation, you all have an intuitive understanding of how to “play your part.”  You say beautiful stuff like, “I’m going to come home and teach.”  “I’m going to set up a lending institution at home.”  You students see through the horrible lie that there is no reason to come home. 

That’s nonsense. There is every reason to go home.  It’s home, the most beautiful places in the world!

Sure, jobs are sometimes hard to find at home.  But you will find a job.  Promise. Or create one—you’re that smart.  There will also be those who will tell you, “Native people are the only race of people who tell their young ones they should come home after they graduate,” as if you shouldn’t feel an innate desire to come home and serve.  But your generation is so wise that you understand that there is a very good reason why Native people are the only race in America that wants its young folks to come home—because Native people are the only race on this continent that has a home to come home to that is right here! We do not have to cross oceans to breathe the same air as our ancestors did or look far to drink the same water that our great, great grandmother did.  We are the only race with sacred homelands that our ancestors worshipped, lived and died in for 20,000 years and so coming home actually means something to us.  The facts are the facts—our homelands are sacred and that’s why our ancestors gave up so much land to preserve the small precious pieces we still have!

I Repeat: Native people are the only people on this continent who have a home to go home to on this continent. THAT is why Native people encourage Native young folks to come home. 

Simple. You understand that.  Your homelands need you.  But you also need your homelands. 

Look, you don’t have to come home tomorrow.  Heck, you don’t even have to come home next year or in five years. Explore. “Get established.” Learn. Make some money!  But understand the pull and yearning that causes you to wonder what life would be like for you on the rez comes from someplace real.  Your soul.  Your spirit. 

Your heart.  It’s home.

Always keep that feeling in your heart and work for home even if you’re not at home.  You represent the dreams of your ancestors.  They gave up precious lands and resources knowing that a generation would come around that would reap the benefits of their sacrifices and utilize their sacrifices to better entire communities.

That’s you. You’re special. And loved.  

Thank you—you’ve done great things already and will do even greater things in the future.  We’re all proud of you.

Love y’all.

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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