Haskell celebrates largest graduating class in its history

photo by: Nick Krug

Haskell Indian Nations University graduates Bry Smiley, Navajo, Coyote Canyon, N.M., and Kristen Torres, Delaware, Kiowa and Comanche tribes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, hug following the 2018 commencement ceremony on Friday, May 18, 2018, at the Coffin Sports Complex.

Giving back to one’s community was the overarching theme of Friday’s commencement ceremony at Haskell Indian Nations University, where family and friends packed into the school’s basketball stands to celebrate the record-breaking Class of 2018.

For the third year in a row, Haskell set a record for the number of graduates, with 234 walking across the Coffin Sports Complex stage. Students receiving their degrees Friday represented more than 130 tribes and 40 states, said John Tahsuda, the ceremony’s keynote speaker.

Tahsuda, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, serves as principal deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. As a young man, Tahsuda told the graduates, he never expected to attend Cornell University’s School of Law and eventually work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the largest federal agency directly affecting Native people — his people, he reminded the crowd Friday.

Haskell is the only four-year university in the country operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I know you make your parents proud, but I want you to know that you make Indian Country proud as well,” Tahsuda said. “You make your ancestors — our ancestors — proud.”

In his remarks, Tahsuda encouraged graduates to embrace the uncertain, to welcome unexpected opportunities and to always remember their “roots.”

Friday’s commencement ceremony featured traditional drum music, prayers and graduates in regalia representing their tribes. Loved ones traveled from as far as California, New Jersey and New Mexico to celebrate the occasion, with grandparents and babies filling the gymnasium.

Elizabeth Davey, Haskell’s 2018 Student of the Year, spoke of her family Friday — both the biological family supporting her back home in Oklahoma and the figurative family she’d found at Haskell. As a freshman, Davey competed on Haskell’s track and field team, a program that was suspended indefinitely in May 2017 amid budget woes and other factors.

The loss of track and field, a sport Haskell has historically excelled in, was “heartbreaking,” Davey said, especially following the suspensions of the football and cheerleading programs in recent years.

“It is my hope that whoever can influence the decision makers, that we keep those (programs) here,” Davey said, her remarks generating cheers across the gymnasium. “We need to keep Haskell’s history alive, and we need to keep people coming.”

After graduation, Tahsuda suggested, Haskell students could go on to serve their communities as tribal leaders and in high-ranking positions within the federal government. Their voices, as Native Americans, are highly sought after and very much needed, he said.

“Anywhere you go, every office in the Department of the Interior — and in our federal government — needs your skills, your experience and your perspective,” Tahsuda said.

Haskell President Venida Chenault also aimed to empower the graduates with her remarks.

“When you realize not only that you belong here, but when you realize that you have more potential than you have ever given yourself credit for — remember that,” she said.

Other honorees at Friday’s commencement included Haskell Alumni of the Year Michael N. Gawhega; American Indian College Fund Student of the Year Cody Lanyate; and Miss Haskell 2017-2018 Caroline Wiseman, who delivered the ceremony’s closing prayer.


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