NAU celebrates Native graduates

Ophelia Begay, Diné, received a bachelor’s in psychology (Photo by Rebecca Schubert).

Ophelia Begay, Diné, received a bachelor’s in psychology (Photo by Rebecca Schubert).

FLAGSTAFF-In recognition of the outstanding accomplishments of approximately 300 Native students graduating this spring from Northern Arizona University, families, friends, tribal leaders, instructors and supporters celebrated at the Native American Convocation and Awards Ceremony held May 10 at NAU's Ardrey Auditorium.

As the students made their way into the auditorium and onto the stage, Sicangu Lakota flutist Gregory B. La Pointe serenaded those in attendance with the sweet sounds of his flute. Numerous graduates dressed in their traditional attire and because individuals from across the continent were present, numerous Native nations were represented including Nambe, Taos and Zuni pueblos, Diné, Hopi, Apache, Tsalagi, Lakota, Pima, Yavapai, Northern Cheyenne, Shoshone and Aleut (to name but a few).

An opening prayer was delivered by Diné graduate and former Miss NAU Kristie Bluehouse.

Next, NAU president Dr. John Haeger offered the welcoming address and highlighted the incredible contribution that Native peoples offer at the university. Haeger highlighted the fact that nationwide NAU ranks number one in the number of Native students graduating with master's degrees and number five in the total number of undergraduate graduates. He said this mark of success necessitates the establishment of a Native Institute at NAU, and asked that those in attendance begin the process of developing this center.

Bringing motion, energy and community to the gathering, four-time world champion hoop dancer Derrick Suwaima Davis of Hopi and Choctaw heritage enthralled the crowd with Eagle and Hoop dances.

This incredible presentation was followed by recognition of outstanding students and staff within the NAU Native community.

Diné student Greg Whitehat Jr., graduating with a bachelor's degree in social work, received the Graduating Senior Award; Diné student George Joe, graduating with a master's degree in English earned the Graduate Student Award; Joann Wood, administrative coordinator for the College of Education was awarded with the Staff Award; and Dr. Joseph Martin, associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Educational Leadership earned the Faculty Award for his establishment of the Educational Leadership Program directly targeting Native students in preparation for positions as principals at Native schools.

Special recognition was directed toward Dwight Witherspoon (Diné), Native American Student Services' senior program coordinator who is resigning his position.

Diné resident elder James Peshlakai was also awarded with a certificate of recognition and (as the plaque reads) "Appreciation of an Individual Who Uniquely Enhanced the University Community's Learning and Understanding of Traditional Knowledge."

Peshlakai was instrumental in establishing the Applied Indigenous Studies Department at NAU, as well as the department's lecture series that reaches out not only to Native staff and students, but the community at large.

Each graduate was then presented to the audience along with their clans, hometown, degree, future plans, and those who were instrumental in achieving the degree. In addition to this recognition, each student received a handmade satin sash with a convocation design representing regions of Arizona including the San Francisco Peaks, Monument Valley and the southern desert country. The design also features an eagle and feathers representing the student's courage, persistence, bravery and wisdom to succeed.

Concluding the evening's ceremonies, Diné graduate Aaron Jones presented the closing prayer.

Although the convocation ceremony lasted only two hours, it was apparent upon the face of each student that the knowledge and honor accompanying the degree would last a lifetime and in the future grow Native communities across the continent and throughout the world.

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