Fourteen graduates and more than 200 guests crowded into the Fort Lewis College Student Union Ballroom on Saturday for the 2023 Native American graduation ceremony.
The Title VI Native American Parent Advisory Committee organized the ceremony that honored graduates from Durango High School and Big Picture High School. Six tribes – Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Apache, Zuni and Isleta Pueblo – were represented in the graduation.
“I feel proud, really proud,” said graduate Brett Franklin. “A lot of family came to support me. They’re the reason I’m up here now.”
Franklin said some members had to drive hours to attend the ceremony, bringing family jewelry for him to wear as well as more than 1,000 cupcakes for guests to enjoy.
Jewelry and cupcakes were not the only gifts the graduates received. During the ceremony, they were presented with stoles and Pendleton blankets.
“In many Indigenous cultures, Pendleton blankets are part of important life events,” said Jodle Muñiz, the parent of a graduate. “(They are) a symbol of wealth, respect, gratitude, love and friendship. So, the graduates will receive their high school diploma on graduation day, but today, we will honor them with a Pendleton blanket to celebrate their achievements.”
Each graduate selected a parent, coach or mentor to present them with a blanket.
The graduates and their companions were called to the front of the room where Navajo Medicine Man Paul Long Sr. explained the proper way to present a Pendleton blanket.
For women, the blanket is unfolded and wrapped around her, and then she is given a hug, Long said. For men, the blanket is put on his left side and he is given a handshake.
After being blessed by Long Sr., the graduates took the stage one by one as their names, tribal affiliations and future plans were announced.
Some examples of their future plans include studying marine engineering, becoming a dermatology medical assistant, and learning trades like welding and woodworking.
The tradition of the Native American graduation began in 2009 under the leadership of Bruce LeClaire who was serving as the Title VII coordinator for Durango School District. LeClaire explained that he wanted a ceremony to highlight and celebrate the graduates.
“We’re all equal in our community, we all have a place,” he said. “... But when we take our youths and we take them from just being out here in the community and we put them in the middle, we’re honoring them.”
The ceremony serves to help remind the graduates of the community support they have.
“(The graduates) can turn and look and see all the people behind them that are offering support,” LeClaire said. “And that really creates a strong sense of community.”
Community is one of the primary focuses of the Title VI program. Established in 2008 as Title VII, the program receives federal funds to support Native American families in Durango School District 9-R.
The program has facilitated the hires of several Native American cultural liaisons who work with students from elementary through high school helping them connect to resources and resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in their personal and academic lives.
Elfreida Begay serves as the DHS Native American cultural liaison as well as the Native American Club staff adviser.
She sends out reminders for upcoming community events and organizes fundraisers to fund field trips for the club, but her most important job is to create a space that makes her students feel comfortable and at home.
“The space I create, it's just for them to come together and hang out with like-minded or familiar people,” Begay said. “A space that's homelike and familiar because most of the time home is outside of Durango.”
Since its origin in 2009, support of the Native American graduation has blossomed. What started from “humble beginnings” with no budget or venue has grown into a successful annual cultural celebration with support from the cultural liaisons, the Native American Parent Advisory Committee and Title VI Program Manager Orlando Griego.
Later this week, the graduates will attend their respective high school graduation ceremonies where they will wear cap and gown and receive their diplomas.
“You've made it and I know that this is just the launchpad for you,” said Durango School District 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser, in an address to the graduates. “This isn't the end.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Karen Cheser’s last name.