2013 Commencement Address – Haskell Indian Nation University

By Ernie Stevens Jr.
National Indian Gaming Association

It was truly a great honor to give the Commencement address to the Haskell Indian Nations University Graduating Class of 2013. I encouraged these young Leaders to celebrate the beginning of this newest chapter of their lives. I related how our ancestors met the challenges of survival, as did their parents and now it is their turn. I told them to celebrate their accomplishment; tomorrow the works starts. I know they are up to it and let them know that. This commencement gives Native America great hope and inspiration for the future of Indian people as we move deeper into the new information age. The following comments are excerpts of my speech.

This University was established more that 117 years ago with a handful of students as an institute. It was the United States Indian Industrial Training School. Then the policy was to “remove the Indian and save the man” which, of course, included women. The intent was to prepare young Indians for the workforce, at entry-level positions. How things have changed! There are so many places in America where Indian people have become professional experts and impact players. At the same time we continue to preserve our culture, traditions and languages and re-energize them and rehabilitate early federal government policies intended to discourage and undermine all cultural expression and worse, to separate children from their families and communities during critical development years. Haskell Indian Nations University is now one of the finest educational facilities in the United States and the world. HINU provides top level academic skills to complement a strong influence of Native American Studies.

My grandma, Maria Christjohn Hinton, was a student here more than 80 years ago and is an example of the phenomenal changes that have since taken place. Today, Haskell Indian Nation University is a shining example of how we have risen to the challenge of self-determination in Indian Education. The policies undermining our languages and culture didn’t work then; grandma was a first language speaker and teaches our language and has taught it in the Tribal school for more than 30 years. She retired as a certified school teacher in her mid-nineties. At Haskell my grandmother quietly resisted the system way back then, which among other things tried to change her left handedness. Grandma stood strong by her traditions and her preferred form of communication, whether it was speaking her language, or writing with her left hand, she is still left-handed, fluent in the language and remains strong at 103. Maria Hinton is the last Living Oneida from Wisconsin who speaks Oneida as a first language. My Grandma went to many boarding schools and in spite of the Government’s intent, held on to her way of life and was able to sort out some of the teachings in a good way yet always avoided talking about the negativity and negative boarding school influence. But let me be clear, Grandma lived this tough boarding school experience, she never blamed, looked back or accused anyone of anything. Her message has always been to move forward, live your life and make a difference because life is now and in front of us, not in the past. She is only one example of Haskell alumni that includes many of your own relatives, and now, this graduating class.

Haskell students have distinguished themselves and compete academically with the best schools in the United States. The HINU Graduating Class of 2013 has been educated at a university that stands head to head with any Graduating class in America, which is something to be proud of. I would like to give a couple of examples to reinforce the stature of HINU’s academic credentials. There are too many Haskell grads  to mention them all so I will mention just a few. Gyassi Ross and Burton Warrington are now young accomplished Lawyers who came to Haskell to play college level basketball and get an education to use to help their home communities and Indian Country, in general. Both of these young Lawyers are doing just that. My point is that while some may think Haskell is not up to par, these people I mention  are examples that show a Haskell education not only meets the academic standards but goes above and beyond them. I told the graduates that you and I are all examples of that.

The determination of Indian Country is represented in the great athletes that Haskell has produced at the highest levels of competition following the tradition of Native people coming out of Indian boarding schools such as Haskell. Jim Thorpe was a student at Carlisle Institute, another Indian boarding school. A hundred years ago he became one of the most celebrated athletes the world has known. (I told the graduates about my Grandmother watching Jim Thorpe demonstrate his skill at the Haskell football Stadium.)

I want to bring your attention to another Haskell alum, my friend Jeff Grubbe, who played football at Haskell and is now a well respected leader in Indian Country. Jeff Grubbe is the Chair at Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Palm Springs, California. There are many Tribal Leaders that got their Education and training at Haskell and I  want to emphasize to you new young  graduates that you are today’s leaders and many of you will go on to serve your respective tribal governments and other leadership positions in Indian country. Your leadership is needed in Indian Country right now. You are today’s leaders.

Ernie raising his fists during his Address, in acknowledgement of Marcus Olivera. Marcus is a professional boxer and is currently the #1 ranked light heavyweight in the world.I want to also mention  my sons; Brandon YellowBird-Stevens and Ernie Stevens III. These two watched their mom and dad play basketball at Haskell when they were just young boys. Brandon is currently serving his second term on the Oneida Nation Tribal Council, has an MBA and serves on the Haskell Board of regents. Ernest III works in  commun-ications and co-produced the motion picture “Crooked Arrows.” He earned his media skills at Haskell’s Film and Media Studies and the Haskell Theater. One of the other former Haskell athletes I want to call your attention to honor in the crowd today is Marcus Olivera. Marcus is a professional boxer and is currently the number 1 ranked light heavyweight in the world, fresh off a knockout victory in South America. Marcus is slated to fight for the World Light Heavyweight Championship in the very near future. (Marcus drew a very loud acknowledgment from the Haskell grads, their families and friends that Day.)

While my wife has always been my favorite Haskell student athlete in my heart,  I want talk about a few others in my speech, too. Probably one of the most well-known and successful both in terms of athletic accomplishment and life is Billy Mills. Mills won the Gold Medal in the 10,000 meter race at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan in 1964. The Billy Mills win was one of the most exciting races in Olympic history. Billy is one of us. He is a guy from the rez who came to Haskell to seek educational opportunity, a Native American who though having experienced a tough young life worked hard to make a difference for himself, his family and his community. And his Impact was not limited to athletics. Billy has gone on and is one of the most Important Motivational speakers in Indian Country and America. Billy Mills was the Commencement speaker when I was a freshman at Haskell, providing  so many of us with great inspiration that day. I met Billy a few years later and told him how much I looked up to him and wanted to motivate people like he did. This is what he told me that day.

I listened raptly, I was a young man in my early 30’s with five little kids and a brilliant, beautiful wife.  Billy told me that while he appreciated the compliment,  he envied me and wished he had what I had, a young energetic family, educated and hardworking with my whole life in front of me to make a strong impact on Indian Country. (I shared those words with the Haskell class of 2013 because it is so true for them, too. I wished I had what they have, I told them they were the best, and to go out and use their education to make a difference in today’s world. That’s what Billy told me to do. We pass on good advice.)

Another great Haskell athlete and grad who became the school’s basketball coach I want to mention was the Late Phil Homeratha.  Phil just recently passed away from cancer. Coach Homeratha coached just about every day of his life and fought cancer to his last breath. He gave his life to Haskell. He recruited my wife off the Haskell Intermural Championship team in 1982. Cher played Center for his first team, and he allowed my wife and me to balance our time to manage our education while taking care of our two little boys.  But anyone will tell you that we were two of many  hard working  student athletes that Coach Homeratha helped and encouraged.

Fast forward to the mid-2000’s and Coach actively recruited our three daughters. Our oldest , Margaret played for Coach Phil and went on two receive her Master’s degree from Kansas University. She was recently appointed to be Head Coach at the Oneida Nation High School, a position her mother held when her daughters played. Coach Phil also recruited Maria and Lois. Maria remains the all time leading scorer and rebounder for both men and women in the school’s history, and is the Basketball Coach with her husband, Jazz, on the Chippewa Cree reservation in Montana.  

Lois was a three-time Academic All-American. She had to help lay Coach Homeratha to rest when he passed away in the middle of her senior year, but not before he gave her the Champion of Character award. Lois made the All-Conference team and graduated with Honors that year. Lois recently finished her first year in Grad school and volunteers as Assistant Coach at Haskell. This summer she is volunteering in the Governor’s office in Topeka, Kansas.  I know Coach would be proud of our girls, who weren’t born yet when their mom played for him. While Cher is a retired Coach, all three of our girls are coaches and active in passing on the basketball lore they learned from Coach Phil making Indian Country a better place in both basketball and as role models for the Native children they coach.

Our family isn’t the only Indian family with such traditions. Many of you can trace your own family history at Haskell; grandparents, parents and extended families. So you know what I mean when I say Haskell is in my heart and in my blood, literally, and in yours too!

My wife and I received our degrees in 1983, 30 years ago almost to the day.  And while much has changed, such as the onslaught of the information age, much has remained the same; Indians working together, competing against the outside, and creatively expressing the cultural traditions of our ancestors. We have never forgotten our origins, our values and the determination of our elders to survive and protect our ways. We work hard in many different ways, fields of endeavor at home and nationally. We are making Indian Country a better place.  

As the Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association my work is to communicate to Senators and Congressional Representatives at the White House regarding the significant Tribal contributions they make to the economies of the States in which they are located as well as to the state and local economies, not just their historical significance. It always surprises me to learn that many of these important people are unaware of the present day contributions of Indian Country to America’s economy.

We have created 650,000 jobs nationwide and more than 300,000 jobs in Indian communities. Indian gaming revenues in 2012 were $27.2 billion the effect of which has spilled over into the local and state communities to their benefit. Since 1988, tribal gaming has generated hundreds of billions of dollars much of which has gone into state tax coffers from wages of gaming employees. The multiplier effect has brought many more benefits as more money is circulated in local and state commerce.

Indian economies were traditionally not based on money but it has become part of the world we live in today. Many of you are here today as beneficiaries of this new prosperity.  Some Tribes have been able to move their economies forward yet others remain in struggle and it is our duty, yours and mine, to help those who have been unable to take advantage for many reasons not within their control. The challenge our ancestors faced is survival, it is the challenge each generation must face and you will now take your place in facing the challenge of survival. It won’t be easy; it never was but it is worth every effort we all make! Those who will follow will recognize and appreciate your efforts. Completing your education at Haskell is a major step on a long road in Indian Country. I would be remiss if I did not recognize the many other Tribal Colleges that are also sending their alumni on to graduate schools all over the United States. It is a measure of such progress that President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was the commencement speaker at the College of the Menominee Nation. Our success in making education a priority has not gone unnoticed and has been enthusiastically supported by the Obama administration and other non-Native friends.

In closing I want to dedicate words to my wife Cheryl Stevens for her invaluable support and who was one of the most dedicated athletes I have ever known. Everything she learned on the court she applied to everyday life. Work ethic, discipline, and sportsmanship name a few examples. Cher has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Economics and played three sports in College. Her ability to take on the hard work was always her strength.

Once again I must reiterate to all of today’s Graduates…you will make a difference in today’s world. So like so many before you go out and create change. Like Billy Mills told me, your whole life is in front of you.  And as my Grandmother said when asked about the historical abuse she encountered in the boarding school era, that was then and this is now, we must look forward and continue to build on a very powerful tradition in Indian Country, People helping people!

(I finished the speech with a quote from President Barack Obama from his commencement speech he made a week previous in Ohio.)  “We are blessed to live in the greatest nation on Earth. But we can always be greater. WE can always aspire to something more. That doesn’t depend on who you elect to office. It depends on you, AS CITIZENS, how big you want us to be, how badly you want to see these changes for the better.”

These words ring true for the Ohio State graduates as they do for you. In fact, they are more relevant for you. You are not only citizens of the United States, you are the citizens and the future of Indian Country!!  Believe in yourself. Walk with confidence, draw on your strength, and live with honesty and integrity.  Graduates, be proud of this day and of what you have achieved. Be proud of where you come from.