Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 2, 2001 - Issue 37



A Lifetime Pledge


Diné College graduates 134 students


by Nathan J. Tohtsoni The Navajo Times


Times Photo/Paul Natonabah-Ruth Marie Retasket is one of the first graduates to receive a master's degree from Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz.

TSAILE, Ariz. (May 18, 2001) - It was a simple statement but also a pledge that will last a lifetime.

Diné College's graduation commencement speaker Richard Williams (Lakota/Cheyenne) asked the graduates to repeat in unison: "I do what I do because in my heart, I do it for my people."

For the first time in over a decade, all campuses of Diné College held their graduation ceremonies at the main campus in Tsaile on Friday (May 11).

One hundred and eighty-one diplomas were distributed - including nine bachelor's of art and two master's of education degrees - at the 32nd commencement ceremony. It was the first time since 1990 that the Shiprock and Tsaile campus held a joint graduation.

First master's degrees
It was also an historic moment for another reason. Della Begay and Ruth Marie Retasket received master's of education degrees, making them the first to do so at the tribal college.

The ceremony began and ended with a journey song by medicineman Avery Denny, instructor of Navajo Holistic Healing at Diné College.

First-year college president Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, said although the seven campuses are autonomous of one another, the board of regents and college administration wanted to demonstrate that it is one college.

"We wanted to express the family concept with our colleges," Manuelito-Kerkvliet said. "We are one college, we wanted to represent that."

Williams, executive director of the American Indian College Fund in Denver, began his speech to the colorful graduating class by introducing himself in his native language. While many of the graduates wore the traditional cap and gown, Navajo colors and designs were prevalent among the first graduating class of the millennium.

He challenged the 134 graduates to fulfill the pledge of helping the Navajo people.

Williams told a story of an Indian woman who married a Navajo man and resided in Navajo, N.M. The woman, who had been called dumb in high school, enrolled in the Diné College GED program in 1976.

After it was determined she was dyslexic, the woman received her associate's degree at Diné College and a bachelor's and master's degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Williams said the woman is now the director of Indian Studies at the University of Denver.

"This lady was called dumb all her life and now she's able to help her own people," Williams said.

Success stories
He added that there are many success stories in the 33 years since Diné College, formerly Navajo Community College, became the first tribally controlled college in the United States.

"The history of education changed with the development of tribal colleges - and it started right here," Williams said. "It took something (boarding school) that was negative, disruptive to turn into something positive to get students excited about learning."

An example of that negative and disruptive education system was an aunt who refused to speak English in boarding school. As a result, Bureau of Indian Affairs' school personnel rubbed her eyes with soap and she was blinded for the rest of her life at the age of 14.

"That was what education was in our family," he said. "Now we know education is a way we can change our lives."

He added that the challenge of tribal colleges to preserve Native American culture, religion and ceremonies are no longer good enough. It needs to change because Native Americans are different.

"People used to say 'You Indian people are different.' It was always in the context of negative," Williams said. "The books called us hostiles, savages, ignorant, lazy, but never once did they call us geniuses.

"We were different. We saw the world differently," he added.

"(Caucasians) didn't understand our world, they didn't see the genius of our world. They only projected our images of what we think of ourselves. The truth of the matter is there are many Indian geniuses. We have to preserve that way of thinking. It was a gift from our creator and it's a way that will make us survive."

Four geniuses
Two of those geniuses are Amelia Begay of T'iis naneezah, Ariz., and Marquita Gishal of Lukachukai, Ariz., who both received bachelor's of art degrees in elementary education. They received their degrees from Arizona State University without ever having to take a class in Tempe.

The college developed a partnership with ASU in the fall of 1996.

Begay and Gishal agreed that having the extension program in Tsaile helped them obtain their diplomas instead of them being a number in the 50,000 students at the university. For Gishal, classes were a mere 15-minute drive.

"It was really convenient," Gishal said. "I look forward to teaching and just being with our youth here where I'm needed."

Begay plans on working with the early childhood education program in Tsaile and Gishal wants to teach on the reservation.

Jody Morgan of Shiprock received an associate's degree in liberal arts.

She would have preferred a ceremony at the Shiprock campus but she enjoyed meeting graduates from the other campus sites.

"(School) was challenging and my professors were challenging. This is a good experience for me," she said.

Morgan plans to attend the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and study pharmacy.

Delono Ashley of Shonto, Ariz., received an associate's degree in psychology and social science. He wore a traditional outfit complete with moccasins, bow and quiver of arrows, and a tsee' ch'ah (warrior hat).

Building a foundation
"The school is based on Sa'ah Naaghai' Bik'eh Hozhooh, which is the main foundation of Diné College," Ashley said. "The way I understand it is it's the road of life. Basically, everything that surrounds us, everything that makes us who we are."

When the Shiprock campus completes its new campus, Shiprock Dean of Instruction Bernice Casaus said the school would request that it host its own graduation ceremony.

Casaus is an example of the success of which Williams's spoke. She graduated at the last joint graduation in 1990 with a certificate in Navajo language. She served as Diné language program director and then last year, became the dean of the Shiprock branch.

"You can build a good foundation if you start at a junior college," she said. "Then when you go out, there's a strong foundation."

Diné College
Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College) was established in 1968 as the first tribally-controlled college in the United States.


Graduates Make History
Two women are first to earn master's degrees in education




  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.



The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.