May 28, 2015 – Last Saturday, the First Nations House of Learning hosted the largest Aboriginal student graduation celebration in the history of the UBC First Nations Longhouse, which opened in 1993.
Fifty-one graduates participated, including honorary NITEP graduate, Musqueam Elder Larry Grant. This represented a quarter of the more than 200 Aboriginal students who graduated from both campuses in the spring and fall convocations.
With family and friends and various UBC dignitaries, faculty and staff in attendance, the Sty-Wet-Tan Great Hall’s capacity of 350 was reached.
For the first time, the event was webcasted live for the benefit of family and friends of graduates, and others who couldn’t attend.
As is custom, the graduates were called into the Longhouse through the ceremonial door, accompanied by a traditional song by Victor Guerin (Musqueam).
Afterward, they and their guests were welcomed to Musqueam territory.
Welcome to Musqueam territory
UBC was honoured to welcome qiyǝplenǝxʷ (Howard Grant), who welcomed everyone to Musqueam territory. He noted that it was his great, great, great grandfather, the first to carry the qiyǝplenǝxʷ name, who first met British naval explorer George Vancouver when he sailed into the area over 200 years ago, and before him, Spanish naval explorer, José Narváez, the first European to enter Musqueam territory.
He reminded graduates that past colonial policy kept First Nation students from going beyond Grade 8, and that it was important to recognize that their success stems from their ancestors’ efforts to overcome past hardships.
He underscored the important role they will play in the re-emergence of Indigenous self-governance and the need “to help re-set the place and the table for our native people.”
He concluded with thanks to the university for acknowledging and recognizing that it is situated on unceded, traditional Musqueam territory.
Dr. Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning, welcomed guests on behalf of UBC President Arvind Gupta, who could not attend due to unforeseen circumstances.
He also added further historical context to the day by acknowledging that the university’s acquisition of land at its inception followed Musqueam’s loss of control of the territory as the reserve system was formed.
He then cited some recent examples of a more viable relationship that has since emerged, specifically the construction of the UBC First Nations Longhouse and the Sty-Wet-Tan Great Hall that mirrors a traditional Musqueam longhouse, a statue of historical qiyǝplenǝxʷ, erected in 2012 at the Allard School of Law in recognition of Musqueam’s presence and prominence in legal history, and the naming of two new student residences with Musqueam names in Musqueam othography. All serve as contemporary markers of Musqueam culture, language and presence at the university and on the land we share.
Dr. Jo-ann Archibald, Q’um Q’um Xiiem, Sto:lo/Xaxli’p, Associate Dean for Indigenous Education, Faculty of Education, Director, NITEP, and Professor in Educational Studies provided the keynote address.
Dr. Archibald spoke about the value of following teachings and shared one given to her by the late Vince Stogan, Musqueam, who had a guiding role within the UBC Aboriginal community.
Specifically, she said that he spoke about the importance of “reaching back for help from those who have been here before us,” in order to acquire their knowledge, teachings and values while at the same time being responsible for passing these onto current and future generations, including those who seek to understand Indigenous histories, values and knowledge.
She demonstrated how Elder Stogan symbolized this teaching by having everyone hold up their left hand to one side, palm up, as though in a receiving posture, then doing the same with the right but with palm down, as though in a giving gesture. In this position, she asked everyone to join hands, thus demonstrating the teaching of how people can work and move forward together.
She explained that the UBC First Nations Longhouse is an example of this teaching, whereby graduates are able to celebrate with family and friends in a “beautiful and powerful house” because of elders and others who over twenty years ago “fought” for its existence. Prior to this, the First Nations House of Learning and the Indigenous teachers education program operated out of old army huts located on campus.
She listed a number of the elders who persisted in realizing the Longhouse — Vince Stogan, Dominic Point (Musqueam), Chief Simon Baker (Squamish), Minnie Croft (Haida), Alfred Scow (Kwakwaka’wakw), Ken Harris (Gitxsan) — as well as Verna Kirkness (Cree), the first director of the First Nations House of Learning, “and many others, of course, (who) gave their hands in help.”
The following is an excerpt of her speech:
This house over the years has become a home—a home for all the students who come here to study, for the faculty who teach here, for the family and community members who come to visit, and all the guests who come into this house.
We try to make this a welcoming place, a place of safety and comfort, but yet one where we can learn more about the issues and the opportunities that face Indigenous peoples. And a big part of that relates to the work of the undergrad and graduate students here at UBC who are often here with their classes and sharing their different assignments and projects that they’ve worked on over the years.
We must also thank the Indigenous faculty who have made space and place for indigeneity within all the disciplines here at UBC. You know, UBC is quite a mainstream, conservative place. So in order to make this important, vibrant space, it takes a lot of persistence, commitment, and good strategists and good politicians – but they do this with a good mind and a good heart.
All my relations
Expanding on Elder Stogan’s teaching, Dr. Archibald told the graduates they are now entering the hands forward stage, in that they are now in a position to give to succeeding generations, and thus they have an important responsibility to pass on teachings and mentorship to younger and future generations.
She also spoke about the teaching regarding the need to “leave the world a better place than when we entered it.
“You have that responsibility… to use that knowledge from your discipline, to use your Indigenous knowledge to make a difference, to create a better life for all who are in this world, not only humans but the animals, the birds, and the environment itself.
“I know that seems like a huge responsibility, but you know you don’t do it alone, just like you haven’t achieved your educational goal alone. You have your family, your community, your faculty, your friends, and each other to help you. And that’s an important teaching: being in a circle of people to help us move forward together.
She then shared the following poetic sentiments of the late Robert Sterling, Nlaka’pamux, who was instrumental in the development of the Native Indian Teachers Education Program (NITEP), and thus concluded her remarks with a call to action.
I have learned that my development has been mental, physical, spiritual, social, family, financial, political, and scientific.
I have learned that I am a product of two worlds and my survival and the survival of my people depends upon me being the best I can be in both worlds.
I have learned:
Not just to look but to see!
Not just to touch but to feel!
Not just to take steps but to stride!
Not just to listen but to hear!
Not just to talk but to say something!
Not just to dream but to do something!
Not just to take but to give!
Not just to exist but to be!
If life in the future means to challenge me, change me, depend on me, use me, hurt me, laugh at me, criticize me, tempt me, complicate me… then I’m ready!
“So, UBC Indigenous 2015 graduates, you are ready to be the changemakers and the transformers to make this world a better place for all. I wish you well in the exciting journeys you have ahead as changemakers and transformers. We look forward to what you will do in the future as individuals but also as people within your families and your communities and what you create together. All my relations.”
Dr. Kesler and Musqueam representative Leona Sparrow acknowledged Musqueam Elder Larry Grant for his instrumental role in the development of the First Nations Languages Program and his longstanding elder-in-residence work at the Longhouse and UBC, generally.
Dr. David Farrar was acknowledged for his role in supporting Aboriginal initiatives at UBC in his many years as Provost and Vice-President Academic, and in particular for willingness to understand the complexity of Aboriginal issues, in order to effectively address them.
Both were honoured with a blanketing ceremony.
Elder Grant was further recognized as an honorary graduate of the Indigenous Teachers Education Program for his many years of supporting students and faculty in that program.
Molly Billows, of the Xwemalhkwu (Hamalco) Nation, graduating with Bachelors of Science Degree in Global Resource Systems, was the graduating student speaker. She spoke about the profound transformative effect that the university experience has on students.
“I can say without a doubt that each one of us graduating today walked through the door into the longhouse transformed.”
To her fellow graduates, she volunteered that, “maybe like myself, you walked through barely recognizable from the person you were when you first stepped onto this campus however many years ago.”
The following is an excerpt of her speech:
This process of transformation, this university experience, is beautiful and powerful but it is not easy. And it is not just the course work that challenges our minds, the late nights and the busy schedules that physically wears us down, or the day to day worries and financial pressures that characterize student life. Because I know there is also the emotional and spiritual effects of stress, anxiety, depression… and while we’re just trying to get by. I know the violence that shakes us, the losses that deflate us and the experiences that make us fundamentally question what we’re even doing here. Yet here we are, largely due to the love and support of our family and friends, the determination and strength we inherited from our ancestors, and also to the endless patience and gentle guidance of our Indigenous professors, staff and community members — those individuals who take on the work of carving out radically de-colonial spaces from within this colonial institution, who give Indigenous students the space to take on this challenging, often emotionally overwhelming but always transformative self-work.
For many of us, this work begins with a great deal of unlearning, deprogramming the stories the media and K-12 education system told us, replacing them with stories of loving ourselves and our nations. It was on this campus that I heard my language spoken for the first time, that I read my first novels, poetry and articles written by Indigenous authors, that I saw my first Indigenous films, other than Smoke Signals, and that I was told for the first time that the possibilities for us Indigenous peoples are limitless, that we come from resilient, powerful, and vibrant nations.
Believe me when I tell you that when I first came here, I was essentially afraid of the sound of my own voice. Mostly I hid in the backs of classrooms trying not to make eye contact with anyone. So when I tell you that this university experience has been transformational, I mean that it was here that I was told for the first time that I have things to say that are worth listening to, that I am enough already, I don’t need to prove that I’m worthy to be here, that there are gifts that I carry that I could contribute.
[T]here is something beautiful about university experience and the restless pursuit of new ideas, perspectives, and stories, the search for and nourishing of the gifts that we have to offer, and the work towards resurgence as we carry our past and our gifts forward. Hopefully throughout our time here, [we] have become more and more ourselves.
Maybe today, you walked through the door into the longhouse knowing your gifts, knowing how you want to contribute them to your communities… and maybe not. That’s okay too. We’re not really suppose to know for sure, because learning is not restricted to the university. This degree is part of ʔәms taʔaw – our lifelong teachings, our lifelong learnings. The process of transformation is never ending.
Following an honour song by Victor Guerin, the ceremony concluded and graduates and guests continued to celebrate over food and much picture taking.