People applauding

ASU American Indian Convocation hits major milestone

By

Marshall Terrill

When hundreds of Indigenous students collect their diplomas next week, they’ll be participating in a historic event — a first-time virtual ceremony to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Arizona State University’s American Indian Convocation.

The milestone ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. Arizona time on Dec. 14. Hosted by ASU’s American Indian Student Support Services, this year’s event is recognized as the Pearl Anniversary celebration. This fall, approximately 270 ASU students who identify as America Indian/Alaska Native applied for graduation; the graduates represent 70 tribes across the country, including Arizona’s 22 tribal nations.

WATCH: View the ceremony

“In one of the most challenging years in recent memory, it fills me with pride that we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the American Indian Convocation,” said Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s senior adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. "It has always been a moment for students, their families, and ASU to reflect on our students’ accomplishments and where they will be going next. Although virtual, this year will allow us to reflect, to appreciate the moment, and to imagine the future that our students will make. Every year is special; this one — as the 30th — is special for so many reasons.”

COVID-19 has forced this year's convocation to go to a virtual format. It will be prerecorded and include messages from Brayboy and ASU President Michael Crow. ASU senior Daangoiina Haven, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in exercise and wellness and pursue her master’s degree at another university, has been selected to deliver the graduate address.

The first American Indian Convocation took place in 1990 at L.S. Neeb Hall, a 438-seat lecture hall on the ASU Tempe campus. It was an intimate affair, according to one ASU staffer.

“The first graduation ceremony was just a handful of students and their families,” said Laura Gonzales-Macias, executive director of American Indian Student Support Services. “It has grown exponentially over the years and in 2010 we had to move to ASU Gammage to accommodate the crowds. We’ve held it there ever since.”

It also has held a special place in the hearts of those who serve American Indian students on all four of ASU's campuses.

“The American Indian Convocation is not only a highlight event for our students, but it is significant in validating the work all our ASU Indigenous faculty, staff, and administration, as well as tribal communities and collaborating partners do to see students through this milestone in life,” said Vickie Baldwin, American Indian Student Support Services student success and retention coordinator.

The ceremony will start by recognizing Indigenous land and people through music from flutist Randy Kemp (Class of 1986) and speeches from Nazhoona Betsuie, facilitator of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, and Brayboy. Graduate stories will then be shared by brothers Jayvion and Teverrik Chee (Navajo Nation), Rocio Marquez (Salt-River Pima Maricopa Indian Community) and Reba Manuel (Gila River Indian Community). Haven (Navajo Nation) will provide the graduate address to ceremony participants who in turn share their photos, tribal affiliation(s) and personal messages on the virtual page.

The Heard Museum CEO David Roche will also present the Eagle Spirit Award to two exceptional Native graduate students: Alexis Ustariz of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Charlene Poola of the Navajo Nation and Hopi-Tewa. The $500 award recognizes these students’ dedication to American Indian communities through service and volunteering as well as their academic achievement in their fields of study. Award recipients will share what being an Eagle Spirit scholar means to them.

The ceremony will end with traditional drum music featuring singer Chris Dinehdeal (Class of 2013) and ASU alma mater songs to honor fellow graduates. 

In recognition of their individual academic achievements, graduates participating in the virtual ceremony received their Pendleton-made stoles prior to the recording of the event. The stoles signify courage, strength, determination and bravery, according to Baldwin. Navajo Nation member Evelyn Begay has created hundreds of stoles over the years for the ASU American Indian spring and fall convocations. Making stoles for the graduates has special meaning to Begay, whose four children are ASU graduates.

The ceremony also has special meaning to Baldwin, who has participated in several American Indian Convocations over the years.

“When Native American students graduate, they aren’t just doing it for themselves but for their families and their communities,” said Baldwin, who is Diné. “The American Indian Convocation is a celebration in acknowledgment and recognition of who they are, where they come from and how they’re going to give back to their communities.”

Top photo: Scholars applauding at the American Indian Convocation inside ASU Gammage on May 11, 2016. COVID-19 has forced the 30-year-old convocation to go to an all-virtual format this year. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now