I had the pleasure of attending Nisga’a Ts’amiks graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 31, 2014. My very good friend, Destinee, who has become more like a little sister or niece to me, completed seventh grade this year. The graduation ceremony honoured Nisga’a graduates from Kindergarten, Grade 7, High School and Post-Secondary. The feast was delicious and finished with take-out containers for the mountain of leftovers, because if I know one thing about the Nisga’a, it’s that they never allow anyone to leave hungry.
I was pleasantly surprised to meet SFU’s new director of the Indigenous Student Centre, Marcia Guno, as she was central to the organization of the ceremony. I had the opportunity to introduce myself and discovered that she is an alumnus of SFU herself, and is enthusiastic about her new role as director with the ISC. I know we will be seeing a lot of her and I would like to congratulate her and welcome her to our ISC family.
The President of Nisga’a Lisims government, Sim’oogit K-‘aw’een, Mitchell Stevens, attended as a guest speaker. He reminded the grads and all of us that as we take a step forward, every time we open our eyes, every time we breathe, things change. It is up to us how we want to fit into that change. It is up to us to make life better for our communities.
Nox Ayaa Wilt, Amy Parent, graduating with a Ph.D. in Education, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at UBC, also shared her experiences with us. She began by pointing out how amazing it is at how much things can change over one generation. It was only one generation ago that Indigenous people were attending residential school. Now, as a Ph.D. graduate, Amy shared her experiences as a student, including the fact that she was a college drop-out two times over before her third attempt at post-secondary was the one that stuck. Amy gave the rest of the student’s four pieces of advice when seeking an academic education.
Learn from your mistakes. She referred to her challenges as Raven, or the trickster.
Be open to the beautiful and unexpected moments in life that may lead you in another direction.
Seek out mentors and people you admire. She talked about how important it is to have mentors who guide and teach us along the way. One of her mentors taught her the importance of speaking out against racism when she sees it at University. I believe this important for all of us.
Remember that learning is lifelong
Because of her experiences, Amy wrote an Aboriginal survival guide for post-secondary and was encouraged by Marcia Guno to join Sage (Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Enhancement). She emphasized how much the program changed her life as she was surrounded by other like-minded, academic Aboriginal people who each supported one another.
As an undergraduate, soon-to-be-graduate student myself, her advice was especially impactful for me. Witnessing the success of strong, Aboriginal women within academia, but also hearing of their challenges and the steps they’ve taken to overcome those challenges, helps me to keep putting one foot in front of the other as I learn from their experiences as well as my own.
The evening drew to a close with music by Murray Porter, an amazing Aboriginal musician who won a Juno for Aboriginal Album of the Year in 2012. He has the most beautiful voice. He played several songs throughout the day, however the one that sticks out for me the most, is a song he wrote called, Indian Car. It addresses myths and stereotypes associated with Aboriginal people particularly related to paying taxes, but the line that made me smile was, “I don’t have no bow and arrow, but that don’t mean I won’t attack.”
It was a lovely day. The sun was shining and I was eating and spending time with the people I love. I was able to watch a young lady whom I’ve witnessed transform from a little girl, receive an honour, as she works hard to move forward with her education. I appreciate these moments because if there is anything I know for sure, it’s that things change so quickly. People change, kids grow up, parents pass away. As Mitchell Steven said, every time we breathe, things change. I cherish my time as a student now, because I know, (I hope) there will come a day when I will look back upon these days and be grateful for all that I’ve learned and all that I’ve become. I appreciate the Nisga’a celebrating their nationhood and allowing me the opportunity to be their guest, to enjoy their food, their entertainment, their wisdom, but most of all their graduates; one of whom I love dearly and have the privilege of watching her grow. Congratulations Destinee, and to all the Nisga’a graduates of 2014.