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An invitation from the First Lady to White House celebration

UND alum Laine Lyons attends first White House Native American Heritage Month celebration

During the first celebration of Native American Heritage Month held at the White House, UND alum Laine Lyons (left) met U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who spoke at the event. Photo courtesy of Laine Lyons.

As with most people who receive an email invitation to attend an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., Laine Lyons was at first suspicious.

Emailed White House invitation

Lyons, a 2016 UND graduate and the director of development for the College of Arts & Sciences with the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, wasn’t sure if the invitation from the First Lady – Dr. Jill Biden – that arrived on Nov. 4 was real. She was asked to attend the first-ever White House celebration and reception for Native American Heritage Month that took place Nov. 15.

“Initially, I thought the email was spam,” Lyons recalled. “I asked our IT guy to look at it to make sure it was real. When it was confirmed to be real, I felt instant excitement and confusion because I had no idea why I was being invited.”

The hallways of history

On the appointed date and time, Lyons was at the White House to represent UND, UNDAAF and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Her first time in the residence of U.S. presidents, Lyons felt as if she was “walking in the hallways of history.”

“I had the distinguished honor to attend the first Native American Heritage Month celebration at the White House,” she noted. “At the event was a room full of people who have worked so hard for Indigenous people to be recognized and celebrated.”

Among them were Sam McCraken, founder and general manager of Nike N7 and a 2022 Social Innovator of the Year. She met model and activist Quannah Rose Chasinghorse-Potts and Lindy Waters III, a professional basketball player for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I met so many amazing people – people I idolize because they have paved the way for someone like me,” Lyons related. “I hope that everyone realizes that your possibilities are endless, and you have the ability to achieve whatever you set your mind on – even if you are a reservation kid like me. “

Dr. Jill Biden gives her remarks during the celebration C-SPAN screen capture.

Lyons heard remarks by Jill Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe. She also saw hoop dancer ShanDien LaRance perform, accompanied by ShanDien’s father, Steve LaRance.

A brighter tomorrow

Biden told attendees, “As we build a brighter tomorrow, all of you are leading the way—coming together to light a better path, healing each other and the country we call home, working tirelessly for the communities you love.

A “surreal” experience in the White House. Photo by Laine Lyons.

“And I see that spirit in you, too — good-hearted, ready for anything, fighting for what you believe in — for the future we all share,” she continued. “I am honored to stand with you and to welcome you to the White House today — your house.”

Lyons also met Haaland, who told the exuberant group of celebrators, “This is the first celebration of this month, but I’ll tell you, it won’t be the last. In fact, we celebrate Indigenous culture and people all year long.

“But today and this month give us a special opportunity to both reflect and share with others our perspective about our world by using our voices and being seen,” she added.

“When I look around this room at so many friends, family and leaders, I can’t help but think that those who came before us worked and fought and sacrificed so that we could all be here together.”

Important messages

Lyons said she felt grateful and honored to attend the White House celebration.

“There are many words I could use to describe the experience, but the one word that encompasses it all is ‘surreal,’” she said. “I am a born and raised reservation kid from Belcourt, North Dakota. How could someone like me be at such an event? These opportunities do not feel like a possibility for people like me.”

One of Haaland’s messages resonated with Lyons.

“She talked about how Indigenous people are finally at the decision-making table and the importance of that when it comes to understanding the disparities within Indian Country,” she said.

Another key message from the event, Lyons said, was provided by Biden, who emphasized that the importance of Native American Heritage month isn’t about checking a box, but about lifting up the voices we need to hear.

“We are stronger when we recognize that are our differences and similarities are important,” Lyons said.