In Service of Home: The Journey for the Seventh Generation

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In Service of Home: The Journey for the Seventh Generation

Sinte Gleska University Commencement Address by Secretary Arne Duncan

August 26, 2011


This is a great day. It's a time to reflect on your wonderful accomplishments and look forward to your future and the future of our nation.

It's a chance to honor those who have supported you and nurtured you – and to think about how you can serve your community, your culture and future generations.

I am honored to be in the presence of tribal leaders, military veterans, Representative Noem, our graduates, their families, and the leaders of the many communities who are able to join us today.

I am especially honored to be in the presence of our elders. It was your time, your vision, and your prayers that made the difference for them.

My last experience on a reservation was so profound that I knew I had to return, and I will continue to return in the years ahead.

I am honored to be welcomed back into Indian Country by Chairman Bordeaux and President Bordeaux to address the future leaders of the Lakota and the surrounding communities.

Two years ago, I spent an unforgettable afternoon at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Dear, Montana.

The reservation had struggling schools and a staggering 70% unemployment rate. Yet even in such dark depths, one student named Teton Magpie—gave me a reason to believe.

Teton wants to be the first in his family to attend college. And he knows that he and the rest of Indian Country can do better if we believe in the real potential of our students.

I'll never forget Teton's composure, courage, and commitment. That's one reason why Teton and I have stayed in touch over the last two and a half years. He begins his senior year of high school on Tuesday, and he is looking forward to following in your footsteps.

I know though that Teton isn't alone, your experiences and accomplishments model for so many American Indian and Alaska Native students.

You are about to be college graduates. You have accepted great challenge with determination and an eye on the future. Today is as much about you as it is about your parents, your elders, and your entire tiospaye that has blessed you with this education.

Please, let's have a round of applause for the families here today for the future they have touched and helped mold.

It's important for you to remember that today isn't only about your accomplishments – it's also about what you will do to touch the future. Today is also about your siblings, your children and the Lakota Nation who you inspire.

You are role models and the modern day warriors for your tribe.

I urge you to continue to uphold and embrace the four Lakota virtues embodied in this University's shield: Wisdom, Bravery, Fortitude and Generosity. This is the Lakota way.

I see these four Lakota virtues boldly exemplified in your tribal leaders.

You have passionate leaders and extraordinary role models like Chairman Bordeaux and President Bordeaux and others who are working hard to ensure the strength of the Lakota Nation.

They're not just advocates for the Lakota, but for all of Indian Country that has been underserved for far too long.

But as passionate and energetic as they are, they're just two people.

As strong as their minds and hearts are, those basketball and football knees are not what they used to be—I know they can't do it alone.

They and others like them need you to join them.

That's why you must join them as warriors for Indian Country.

You've been blessed with an incredible education—a TCU education—an education that means something to you and your people, and have an opportunity to advocate for those who have not. You must protect your way of life by speaking for it.

I know that the Lakota people place a tremendous amount of responsibility on the seventh generation and the Oyate.

You must live your life with their spirit in mind.

What are you going to do to preserve your language, your sacred sites, and your ceremonies?

How are you going to serve your community so it not only survives but thrives seven generations from now?

How are you going to build the schools that the Lakota children desperately need and deserve? Creating quality educational opportunity has never been so important.

If the seventh generation is going to enjoy its rich Lakota culture, then you must spread your wings and fight for them.

We know Native communities have been under attack for centuries. You need to continue to use your education to fight back.

To save your language, your history, and your culture, you need to fight back and fight for your schools.

Fight like the warriors who have joined me on the stage and like the warriors who have joined you in the crowd.

My simple message today is that education is the key the future of the Lakota nation, and your service to the education of the seventh generation will require your continued sacrifice and strength.

Some of you will be needed here in your communities.

You will be the passionate teachers, the committed parents and the innovative business leaders who will work to ensure the community continues to be strong and vibrant.

But others of you will journey away to fight for Indian Country in state capitols and in Washington.

There are battles that need to be fought there as well. No matter where you are in the world—either on the reservation or beyond—your Lakota spirit and education have prepared you well to fight for your people.

Everyone here today knows that seven generations from now, education in Indian Country must be far better than it is today.

We're doing everything we can in Washington to build a new future for Indian education.

For too long, people have tried to hide Native education in big numbers and big words.

But no more—our First Americans deserve better.

Just last year, my team at the Education Department held six consultations and six listening sessions—four in cities and two more at tribal colleges.

We know that we've got to communicate with and learn from those who know these communities best—the tribal leaders actually in those communities.

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Larry Echo Hawk and Director of Indian Education, Keith Moore, who have joined us today, are some of my wonderful partners in this effort. No one is more committed to driving improvement and helping our children succeed than they are.

The Obama administration has taken great strides to strengthen and honor the trust responsibility between our governments.

We've tried to talk with, and not at, Native communities.

We've looked to collaborate beforehand rather than consult afterwards.

And from our conversations, we know that Tribal Colleges and Universities and our nation's future prosperity are inextricably tied, and we will continue to stick up for them.

But real transformative change does not come from Washington; it comes from leaders in your communities and from you.

Indian Country can only secure its future when its leaders—you—fight for it. It will never be secure until you do big things.

Some battles for the future will take place here in your community and you will have to journey to others.

I challenge you to fight all of them to engage at every level of debate and discussion. The seventh generation depends on the strength and courage of today's generation to address the challenges within their communities and beyond.

Your education here at SGU has empowered you to conquer enormous challenges and fight for the Lakota, here and beyond.

Please do not passively wait and hope for others to advocate on your behalf. Carry your own torch to lands where your fire remains unseen.

With unshakable strength in your tribal identity, extend your reach far and wide—both at home and along your journeys. This is a challenging mission, but a necessary mission.

History is full of others who have travelled to fight for the preservation of the Lakota Nation.

Take on the journey like Representative Ben Reifel, or Lone Feather. Lone Feather attended Todd County schools and didn't complete eighth grade till he was 16.

His father forbade him from entering high school, but nothing could stop his drive to learn.

Reifel hiked 250 miles and literally ran towards an education, eventually earning his Ph.D. With such incredible opportunity, Reifel knew that he had an obligation to speak for the reservation.

He had to give a voice to the voiceless. So he won a seat in Congress and worked tirelessly to bring better education back to Indian Country.

Take on the journey like my good friend Bill Mendoza, our top adviser on Tribal Colleges and Universities, who knows how hard journeys can be.

Bill was a Rosebud Panther, Wildcat, and Falcon and his first experiences with higher education were here at SGU.

He latched on to education as the surest path to provide for his family and people.

He traced the line between the soul of his ancestors, the expectations of his elders and his vision for a better way of life for his children.

To defeat misinformation and protect his people, he knew that he must share his culture with the world.

Armed with an education, Bill joined my team to continue this important work that we both care so passionately about.

He is pained to be away from home. But he says that though this journey is "temporary, it is necessary." And take on the journey like Sinte Gleska himself.

Spotted Tail knew that education was the key to being able to walk in both worlds.

He knew that the future of the Lakota depended on the quality of the education our children received.

So Spotted Tail traveled to Washington and convinced the government to send teachers back to the reservation.

This was an ambitious journey. But it was one that sparked his quest for a quality education for his people.

It was his hope that it would ignite a movement to empower the Lakota to preserve their way of life. It did.

We stand on his namesake land and 35 other Tribal Colleges and Universities around the country reflect a similar vision for their people.

Please join me and give a round of applause for those Tribal College and University presidents who have joined us today and represent this movement's leadership. It is this legacy—this journey—that you inherit.

You might think that this journey—your journey—ends when you receive your diploma. It doesn't. There is so much more to be done. The accomplishments of Lone Feather and Sinte Gleska and of course, the passion and effort of Bill, have several things in common.

They understand the importance of education as the one true path to protecting and preserving the way of life they hold dear.

But they also understood that they needed to venture on a journey to address difficulties head on.

Their work and inspiration will always be rooted in their communities but took them across the country and across cultures. They fought within and journeyed beyond the reservation to protect the reservation—not for themselves, but for the sake of the people. They knew that they had to build schools, businesses and hospitals at home that would strengthen the seven generations to come.

Such a journey is not easy—but it is necessary. They had been empowered by an education and therefore bore a deep responsibility to those who had not.

And that meant they had to act broadly and boldly. You now bear the responsibility that your ancestors, grandparents, and parents have carried forward. The journey continues.

As you receive your diploma today, I remind you that you serve as the seventh generation's warrior to the world. Do not trust others to speak on your behalf.

The Lakota must speak the Lakota vision. Like your tribal leaders, be wise, brave, generous, and have fortitude.

So my challenge for you is to assume this mantle of leadership for Indian people, even if that means taking on difficulties that seem insurmountable.

There is only one Native American today in Congress. There are only three Native Americans in the South Dakota state legislature. This is simply not good enough. How will you challenge and change that reality?

How can we secure a vibrant education in Indian Country if we do not define it, if we do not speak for it, if we do not demand it and help create it?

The Lakota need you to take on new challenges. Run for Tribal Council. Run for Congress in Washington.

Get elected to the state legislature in Pierre. Run for the school board here in your community.

Please use your education to secure a better education for your children and their children. You are preserving your way of life.

Take your destiny—take your children's destiny—into your own hands. Think creatively and act boldly for your community—shape your own fate. In your journeys the Lakota spirit never leaves you—it leads you.

It guides you. Your journey preserves your culture and your culture serves your journey.

As Simon Ortiz, a former professor here who appreciates the beauty and strength of this land, writes, "A night's hard journey/without stars/is taken in any case. Homing on moments before,/we do not lose our way./We are always there. Within."

In a starless night, when faced with adversity, when faced with a journey, you will not lose your way if you think of the Lakota family, the Lakota land, and the Lakota future. The seventh generation is always there—within you.

For the seventh generation, for the Lakota people—journey.

Because of the leadership and commitment you have already demonstrated, you give me great hope for the future.

Congratulations to the Class of 2011! I wish you the best of luck, and I expect great things from you.