Santa Fe Indian School Prepares for FLOTUS Visit
Santa Fe Indian School Principal Dr. Felisa Gulibert was searching for just the right words to convey her school’s response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acceptance of their invitation to address the 2016 graduating class on May 26. “Elation,” she finally said, “leavened with gratitude. The First Lady’s presence and her message will have an indelible, historical, and profound impact upon the future of these graduates and the rest of our Native American youths.”
As much as possible under the extraordinary circumstances, the school is working to make this a graduation much like any other. “Our focus is on the graduates,” explained Kimball Sekaquaptewa, who is coordinating the media participation. “This day is for them.” Each of the 106 graduates will have 17 or 18 tickets to distribute to family and friends; it is expected that every one of the 2,660 seats in the Pueblo Pavilion will be filled. All 19 governors of the pueblos who own and operate the school will be there in traditional dress to shake the hands of each and every graduate. There will be the usual Native dancing, after which the students will change into their caps and gowns. There will be a traditional feast beforehand, not after, to accommodate Mrs. Obama’s schedule. The Valedictorian and Salutatorian have not yet been selected, testing is ongoing; but they will each have 15 minutes to address their fellow classmates and wider community.
“Our ceremonies are long,” laughed educator Cree Abeyta, an alumna with deep ties to the school. Her uncle, Joseph Abeyta, played an instrumental role in the school’s founding, and her father was a teacher and coach. “After college at the University of New Mexico, I returned to Santa Fe Indian School. This is part of our core values, giving back to our community.”
Ms. Abeyta has primarily approached this opportunity as a “teachable moment,” or moments. The first was about faith. “This is an example that dreams can come true; if you follow your heart, it can happen. Because Mrs. Obama has said yes instead of no, everything has changed.”
The second was to acknowledge this event’s significance as a further step along the road to genuine mutual respect between the U.S. federal government and Indian country. Beyond even the First Lady’s April 2015 speech, in which she recounted what she termed “a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.” Quoting from her remarks:
Let me offer just a few examples from our past, starting with how, back in 1830, we passed a law removing Native Americans from their homes and forcibly relocating them to barren lands out west. The Trail of Tears was part of this process. Then we began separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools designed to strip them of all traces of their culture, language and history. And then our government started issuing what were known as “Civilization Regulations”—regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies and practices—so we literally made their culture illegal.
“For me as a Pueblo woman who grew up seeing my people struggling largely because of U.S. Indian policy… I became emotional when she made the public apology for the atrocities,” Ms. Abeyta said. “And her Gen-I (Generation Indigenous) initiative is very welcome.”
According to Abeyta, curriculum at the Indian School includes lessons about the atrocities, those named by Mrs. Obama and many others; there’s no whitewashing of history, that’s one of the points of Natives having control over their own educational institutions. But what’s also emphasized is how Native communities have overcome adversity, or as Abeyta put it: “How we are even still here.”
Most of the graduating class—95 percent—are college-bound, going to institutions as various as Texas Tech., University of Denver, Yale, University of Hawaii, Dartmouth, Columbia, NYU, and Harvard, where Malia Obama is headed. Senior Shayna Naranjo, a participant in a number of Gen-I leadership programs through her tribe has been accepted to Stanford University in California. “It’s just surreal that a little girl from Santa Clara Pueblo could be going to Stanford,” she said.
Naranjo has attended the Santa Fe Indian School since 7th grade, living in the dormitories all six years. “It’s truly a home to me, one that’s taught me to embrace who I am,” the 18-year-old said. The opportunity to study and live with students from all 19 pueblos makes the Indian School a unique educational opportunity in her view. “We dance the same dances, but the details are different.”
Naranjo explained that when the senior class began their commencement speaker deliberations, the First Lady was not their first choice (they didn’t think it was realistic): some students wanted Sherman Alexie, others Leonardo DiCaprio.
“If I could speak to her personally, I would express my gratitude and thankfulness for her coming. That out of the thousands of schools, she chose ours for her last commencement address as First Lady,” Naranjo said. “I wish for her to enjoy her time off after she finishes as First Lady. But I hope both she and President Obama will plan to continue their investment and commitment to Native youth and Native issues.”
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