Unlock the Silence—Let Us Speak to the World

Archived Information

Unlock the Silence—Let Us Speak to the World

Commencement Address, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan College of the Menominee Nation, Keshena, Wisconsin

June 1, 2013

Thank you so much, President Fowler, for that kind introduction.

It's such a pleasure to join you today to do something that should happen much more often in education—and that is to celebrate success. I can't tell you how honored I am to have this opportunity to speak with you, and to celebrate your accomplishments with your friends and family.

Can I ask every graduate who is the first in their family to get a college degree, to please raise your hands? And please, keep your hands up for a moment.

Now, could every graduate who either worked while they earned a degree, or came back to this college to complete their degree after taking a break from their education—could you also raise your hands?

I see a lot of students' hands in the air. Please give them all a big round of applause.

To our graduates, and their families who helped them get here, congratulations. You have overcome such tremendous odds. Each and every one of you has set the example, and cleared the way for others who will follow in your footsteps, hopefully for generations to come.

First-generation college students, like so many of you, face real challenges. Many of you have had support from your wonderful family and friends. Others navigated this path toward a college degree with less help.

All of you took college entrance exams. You applied for financial aid, and searched out where and how to apply to college.

In addition to the hurdles that many first generation college students face, American Indian students face unique barriers.

As you know, the statistics are often very daunting. The suicide rate for American Indians is tragically more than twice that of other minority groups. The death rate from alcohol-related causes is unacceptably high. And violent crime and high rates of unemployment ravage too many reservations.

Culture, language, and geographic isolation, limit access to mainstream colleges for many American Indian students.

But despite all those very real challenges, all of you—through determination and grit—have found ways to persevere and to succeed.

I loved hearing the story of Dean Besaw and his son, Aaron. When Aaron first enrolled at the University of Wisconsin as a freshman, he just wasn't prepared for his engineering and physics classes.

In fact, he wasn't prepared for college life in general—he struggled both academically and socially.

For Aaron, a member of the Menominee tribe, it seemed like the other university students were speaking Greek. At his father's urging, Aaron returned here to the reservation and enrolled in CMN. He then worked intensively with Dr. Martin, a physics professor here.

After a year of intensive work under Dr. Martin, he returned to the University of Wisconsin prepared for the first time for rigorous college coursework. He was so successful that Aaron even began to tutor other students in his engineering and physics classes.

Just two weeks ago, Aaron graduated from Wisconsin. He became the first member of Menominee tribe to graduate with degrees in engineering and physics.

His father told him that his initial challenges at college were not in any way a judgment of his ability, but all about a simple lack of preparation. Preparing students to succeed is the job of the education system; it is a job that CMN does amazingly well.

In so many ways, Aaron's story is your story. And please take a moment and reflect upon all of the barriers that you have overcome to be here today.

You are here, and you are graduating, because you fundamentally understand the power of education. Not only are you empowered to choose a career that fits your skills, interests, and passions, but you can change your own lives, the lives of other people, and the lives of those of the reservation.

Your voice, your work, and the example you set can change the world. This is a testament to the opportunities that an education provides. You can lose lots of things in life, but no one can ever take your education away from you.

But please remember that none of you got here today by yourself. None of us makes this journey alone. Along the way, there was someone that gave you a helping hand, whether it was a family member, a friend, a mentor, or a professor.

And to help with the inevitable bumps on the road in the journey ahead, you will need help, from time to time, when you stumble. We all need that help.

As we celebrate your success today, it's also important to remember those who were not as fortunate. Think of your many classmates who began this journey with you as college freshmen, but who will not receive their degrees today. Think of all of those who have not graduated from high school yet.

I was told that the Ojibwe called the Menominee the "wild rice people" because the Menominee tribe was gifted with wild rice. Your success here today is a clear sign that you are the chosen ones among your tribe—a gift to your people.

But with that gift, with that accomplishment, comes obligations and responsibility. I would urge each of our proud graduates to think of how in the course of your careers, of raising a family, that each of you can also give back to the community.

Think about how you can help others—just as those who went before you helped to bring you to this day. Know that you are a link in a chain that must continually grow stronger and more powerful.

Graduating from college matters a great deal—but it also matters what you learn in college. CMN has trained you in STEM fields, in nursing and in teaching. You are ready for further education. You will become the next generation of teachers, accountants, nurses, and public servants.

More importantly, you will go forth and proudly represent the Menominee tribe to the rest of the world. That is an amazing honor. You will follow in the footsteps of the great Menominee who came before you—including Ingrid Flying Eagle Woman.

As you know, Ingrid was a modern-day Menominee warrior. And she was a tireless defender of the rights of indigenous peoples—not just here but around the world.

Ingrid was so passionate about the preservation of Native languages and cultures—she understood that the visions of our ancestors continue to live through all of us.

She pointed out that for so long, indigenous people have been "unable to speak, [unable] to contribute to the solutions of the problems facing humanity" despite the vast repository of knowledge and wisdom enshrined in all native cultures.

Her eloquent plea—and I quote—was to "unlock the silence of our peoples" because "peace lies in all of us working together, to make things better for future generations."

If Ingrid Flying Eagle Woman was here today, I think she would urge all of you to unlock the silence—so that the generation that follows in your footsteps can speak the Menominee language to the world.

And speak you must. As a consequence of forced assimilation, only 375,000 American Indian language speakers remain in the United States. And just 660 people remain today who speak Menominee.

This is both a tragedy and a crisis—but it can be fixed. The loss of your languages has alienated many American Indians from their own history, culture, and ways of knowing.

Too many young people today have forgotten who they are and where they came from. That separation from one's true identity has devastating consequences.

We must change course before it is too late. The revitalization of your language and ensuring its continuity are the first two steps taken in preserving and strengthening a community's culture.

We all know that the use of native languages builds identity, encourages communities to move toward social unity and self-sufficiency, and helps us stay connected to our ancestors' way of knowing. It enables us to learn from the past, and draw strength from it—even as we plan for the future.

Tribal colleges like CMN play a critical role in revitalizing American Indian culture and languages. And CMN has played this role even in these very tough economic times.

You are preserving your languages and cultures not only for your communities but for the entire world.

The truth is that American Indian culture is embedded in the very heart of CMN. I was so impressed to learn that the Menominee language is taught all the way from early learning centers through high school.

Here, at the college, over three-quarters of the students have enrolled in a Menominee language class. And the college is currently training instructors to teach throughout the reservation.

President Obama and I want every child to have a world-class education—and today more than ever a world-class education requires students to be able to speak and read languages in addition to English. Being bilingual is a tremendous advantage.

Research studies show that being bilingual increases a child's mental flexibility and improves performance on academic assessments. In fact, children who study a second language actually score higher on verbal tests conducted in English.

Finally, bilingual students tend to have better creativity and problem-solving skills. They are able to develop a stronger sense of their own identity and often are more sensitive to other people and other cultures. Those abilities are exactly the 21st century skills that we would like to see in all of our students.

To close, as you venture forth tomorrow and in the years that follow, I urge you to remember at a very deep level who you are and where you came from.

Remember that you stand on the shoulders of many great Menominee warriors who came before you, such as Ingrid—and others like Ada Deer.

In fact, the reason the Menominee tribe enjoys federal recognition today is due in large measure to Ada's tremendous hard work

In 1954, the Menominee were terminated as a federally recognized tribe, but they fought to regain their official status.

That attempt to disenfranchise the Menominee people awakened the political consciousness of a young woman studying at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Ada Deer. Ada realized she needed to join the fight to restore federal recognition of her people.

Many people said she was too young. They told her she was too naïve. They told her "you can't fight the system."

And yet, like all of you sitting here today, she proved the doubters and the skeptics wrong; she absolutely beat the odds. She helped bring the Termination Era to a close—and pressured Congress to restore official recognition to her tribe.

But even then, Ada Dear didn't stop and just rest on her laurels.

After helping to restore the official status of the Menominee Nation, Ada went on to draft a new constitution for the Menominee people. And then she served as the first female Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs under President Clinton.

It is because of the work of Ada Deer, and so many like her, that your people have retained its status as a federally recognized tribe.

Students who are the first in their families to graduate from college carry the dreams and hopes of their ancestors and elders with them. Many of you are fulfilling the dreams of your ancestors today, and they are so proud.

So please sometime today, thank your parents, thank your family, thank your friends, thank your teachers.

And one day I fervently hope you will be proudly sitting in the stands, watching your own children graduate from college.

I hope one day you will hear your children say "thank you for bringing me to this moment." The link in the chain shall not be broken.

Ada Dear said——and I quote—"We need turn to the wisdom of the past before we plan for the future. We all have choices—we have choices in our communities, our families, tribes, personal choices."

What will each of you choose to do? Who will you choose to be? What impact do you want to have?

In Ingrid Flying Eagle Woman's words, "it's time to unlock the silence. It's time for you to speak to the world."

Thank you for allowing me to share this special day with you. And congratulations to each and every one of you!

I'm so proud, and I look forward with great anticipation to what you will do in the days and years ahead. I wish you all the best.