Grounded in Tradition, Charging Into the Future

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Salish Kootenai College commencement, Pablo, Montana

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(202) 401-1576, press@ed.gov


[Note: Secretary Duncan deviated in spots from his prepared remarks]

Thank you, President DePoe, for that kind introduction. I am honored to be here, in the home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, and especially to share this wonderful day with you, your families, our tribal leadership, and our elders.

I don't think we celebrate success in education enough—and today is very much a day to celebrate.

I want to start by acknowledging one of our founding leaders of the tribal college movement—Joe [McDonald], in this building named in his honor!

Your lifelong dedication to improving education for American Indian students—not just here, but across the country—is an inspiration for all of us.

So to all the graduates, and the family and friends here today, you testify to Salish Kootenai's motto: "Grounded in tradition, charging into the future."

I love that motto. And today I'd like to take a few minutes to talk to you, our graduates, about how a college degree from SKC can both ground you in your tradition, and prepare you to charge into the future.

Graduates grounded in tradition remember and cherish their roots—and I am confident that you are going to give back to your tribal communities, even if you pursue a career far from home.

But what does it mean for you to "charge into the future", in what is becoming a more knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy?

First, it is about pursuing your passion, getting up and doing what you love, even if you wouldn't get paid for it. What motivates you, gives meaning to your life?

Find that path, pursue it with everything you have, and in it you will discover your genius.

And second, it means you'll manage uncertainty; you'll adapt and be creative. Everyone has setbacks—but not everyone has an SKC diploma. The education you've received here has prepared you to meet the challenges of your future head on. The tenacity, the grit, the work ethic, you have demonstrated to get here today will serve you well for the rest of your lives.

Earlier today, I got a little taste of SKC's traditions—I got in a basketball workout at Two Eagle River School.

Joyce Silverthorne, my colleague at the Education Department used to teach at Two Eagle River School. I know how excited and proud she is to be here today, as a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, and to share this great day with you.

When I was growing up, on the South Side of Chicago, playing basketball meant being grounded in tradition. And I'm glad to see that same tradition here!

Congratulations to both the Lady Bison and the Bison on winning the AIHEC championship over Northwest Indian College! Playing 10 games in 6 days is no easy feat.

And 20-plus game winning streaks during the season—for both the men's and women's teams—that's an incredible testament to teamwork, talent, and tenacity. Let's give those champion student athletes a hand!

And there are others we need to recognize, starting with President DePoe. Since his inauguration last year, he has carried on the tradition of Joe and SKC's founders, putting students' needs first. These young men and women are better because of your committed leadership.

So thank you and let's all take a moment to recognize President DePoe for all he's done for SKC.

Some of you may know President DePoe's story. For those who don't, I want to say a few words about him. I promise this will be brief, because he is a humble man—and he asked me not to talk a lot about him.

When President DePoe was a young man, college didn't work for him the first time around. He enrolled at North Idaho College, but dropped out after his first semester. School was hard, and he was young.

But he always knew—if he ever found himself too far out of his comfort zone—that he could come home. And so he did, to work at a lumber mill in Polson.

But he knew that his path to fulfillment, to success, and to finding his genius ultimately depended on getting a college education. So he went back to school and earned his bachelor's degree and then his master's at Southern Utah University.

Education empowered him to serve and advocate for Native people—starting in Utah, where he was a social worker and education director. But then, Salish Kootenai had the wisdom to ask him to come home again. And he's here, to serve his people.

I tell his story for two reasons.

One is that important achievements never, ever come easy. President DePoe wasn't handed the keys to his office when he graduated from college. You will face setbacks and failure. I promise you, I've failed many, many times. Even President Obama, whom I'm proud to call a friend, will tell you he has failed at times.

The question isn't whether you'll face adversity or fail. You will.

The question is how you will handle that failure—whether you'll get back up and keep going, and whether you will learn from the experience and be wiser the next time you face a challenge.

But the second reason I'm telling President DePoe's story is that even as he pursued his calling in the world, he remained grounded in his tradition. He came back to serve his community.

There are many ways to serve. Like President DePoe, please lead by example for future generations and those around you. Pave the way for your brothers, sisters, and cousins, and even your friends, aunts, uncles, and parents.

Prove that, with determination and dedication, your voice and, more importantly, your example can make a difference—not just here on the reservation, or in Montana, but across the country.

In so many ways, you—our accomplished graduates—and this college have already shown cutting-edge leadership, while remaining grounded in your traditions.

SKC was recently selected by NASA to launch a satellite, Bison CubeSat, next year. You are the first tribal college in the nation—and one of just 33 colleges across the entire country to earn that honor, alongside major research universities like Cal-Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

You were one of only four colleges nationally to earn a prestigious award for increasing opportunity, persistence, and degree completion for traditionally underserved students.

We love when excellence is pursued through inclusion, rather than exclusion, and that is exactly what you have done.

Through the Broadfield Science Secondary Education degree program, you are challenging an unjust opportunity gap in science and engineering.

It's devastating not just to Indian Country but to all of America when just two-tenths of one percent of all workers in science and engineering occupations are American Indian or Alaskan Natives.

We can, and we must do better—the status quo isn't acceptable.

And when the National Native American Ironworkers program ended, you fought to bring welding to Pablo—and won.

This year, five students received American Welding Society certifications, completing the first-ever welding course offered at SKC.

You boast the only bachelor's degrees at any tribal college in forestry, hydrology, and nursing. And I know the hydrology program will benefit from the tribes' acquiring the Kerr Dam next year—as the first tribes in the nation to own and operate a major hydropower facility.

Now, even as you have promoted cutting-edge skills and the jobs of the future, you have not forgotten your past.

In just a year's time, you've doubled the enrollment in your Tribal Historic Preservation Program—the only major of its kind in the nation.

And you are preparing a generation of culturally-competent teachers whose pre-service training has helped prepare them to inspire the hopes and dreams of their students. There is no form of leadership more important, or more rewarding, than becoming a teacher and preparing the next generation for success.

Being grounded in tradition doesn't mean just studying the past—it means using your knowledge to look forward to influence the future.

If you have any doubts about the relevance of knowing history and tribal traditions outside of Salish and Kootenai country, just look at Washington, DC, where we are having an important debate over the name of the city's football team.

I agree with President Obama that it's absolutely time to look for a new name. I don't know of any sports teams that are called the White Skins, the Black Skins, or the Brown Skins. Why this franchise fights to preserve a name that insults, demeans, and angers so many is difficult to comprehend.

And I agree with Robert McDonald, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes spokesperson who said he "looks forward to a day when all professional sports teams use names that bring people together rather than repelling potential fans." Frankly, that day is long overdue, and can't come soon enough.

Collectively, you have so much to be proud of today.

So many of you embody the SKC motto of being grounded in tradition but poised to charge into the future, like Niche Caye. She received her associate's degree in nursing in 2000 and returned to earn her bachelor's in 2012—both here at SKC.

She has put her skills to work as an instructor to serve the Native community with passion, compassion and cultural competency.

Despite having never lived far from home, Niche took a big risk, moving to Alaska to chase her dream of helping others and pursue her career as a nurse.

Her experiences on an orthopedic floor and in Trauma I hospitals inspired her to make an even greater impact.

When she returned to Pablo, she had the skills and expertise to train future nurses, and constantly encourages her students to make a difference by being leaders in the community.

Today, she's enrolled in the PhD Nursing program at the University of North Dakota, in addition to serving as an instructor and mentor. That's how she's leading, and demonstrating the power and importance of being a lifelong learner.

So, before I close, I want to ask two things of you.

First, consider who helped you get here. None of us—none of us—get to graduation day all by ourselves. Someone—maybe many people—believed in you and made an investment in you: a family member, teacher, a counselor, a coach, or a friend.

Think about all those who helped you arrive at this day of celebration and accomplishment, and please take a moment to thank them, and give them a round of applause.

And my second request is to please remember to pay forward that commitment, that investment. Pay it forward, not necessarily to the person who helped you, but to someone you will help in the future.

Today, we are all here to celebrate, to recognize our graduates as both leaders and examples to those who will follow in your footsteps.

That's a powerful and important role. The truth is that we all need help at some point.

That's a core idea behind a new effort President Obama has announced to help young men of color, including Native boys and young men, called My Brother's Keeper.

Whatever challenges you've faced, whatever obstacles you will overcome—SKC has prepared you for this moment in your lives.

Today, we celebrate you—our next generation of Native educators, scientists, nurses, businesspeople, and tribal leaders. I can't wait to see where you'll lead this community and our nation.

I loved seeing the signs on Highway 93 heading to campus—I understand they're written in Salish as you head north, and in Kootenai when you head south. What a great way to represent tribal legacies and traditions.

I've heard that whenever you see the beautiful Mission Mountain Range, coming over the hill, you know you're home. Thanks to all of you, for letting me experience your home for the day.

You are grounded in tradition, but charging into the future.

So please, lead the way. Lead with purpose; lead with passion; lead with determination to make a difference.

Thank you for letting me share this great accomplishment and time of passage, with you. Congratulations! I wish you all the best.