‘YOU have persisted. YOU are resilient. YOU are thriving.’
North Dakota Poet Laureate Denise Lajimodiere shares story of resilience and perseverance through commencement address
The following is a speech written and delivered by Denise Lajimodiere, UND alum and North Dakota Poet Laureate, who spoke at UND’s Spring Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 13. Footage of the speech is available on YouTube, starting at 37:47 during the Undergraduate Degrees Ceremony.
Boozhoo! Aaniin! Good morning (afternoon)!
President (Andrew) Armacost, Chair (Dr. Casey) Ryan, Provost (Eric) Link, assembled vice presidents and deans, faculty and staff. Thank you for having me today. I’m so happy to be your commencement speaker, and thank you, President Armacost, for that kind introduction.
Good morning graduates, families and all who are gathered to acknowledge this special day.
Congratulations, UND Class of ’23! Give yourselves a round of applause!
I’m so excited and honored to stand before you as you celebrate your graduation.
This medieval regalia was first worn when I graduated in 2006 with my doctorate in Educational Leadership. At that time, little did I know I’d be standing here as your commencement speaker in 2023. I knew there was a reason I kept this symbol of honor hanging in my closet, reminding me of all that was endured as I strived to achieve an education that has been a valued and treasured foundation. The importance of those years spent here continues to fill me with gratitude.
I’m proud of all my UND degrees.
- UND is the flagship institution of the state of North Dakota and is the only university in the state with both law and medical schools.
- UND leads in educating the region’s doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, aviators, aerospace scientists and business professionals.
- UND also leads with innovative programs in Indigenous Health — such as Indians into Medicine, Recruitment and Retention of American Indian Nurses, and Indians into Psychology.
- In fact, UND had the world’s first Ph.D. degree program in Indigenous Health and the world’s first Department of Indigenous Health.
- UND still holds the distinction of producing the most Native American physicians of any institution in the nation.
- And currently, all presidents of North Dakota tribal colleges are UND graduates.
Some of my happiest memories are as a student here.
It was a long journey to get here.
Both my parents were sent to boarding schools in the 1920s and ’30s. My father is of the Stolen Generation. He was taken from his home in the Turtle Mountains and spent three days and three nights on a train to Chemawa Industrial Boarding School in Oregon. Not speaking a word of English, he had lye soap put in his mouth until he learned English. He survived a beating called the Gauntlet, and a smallpox epidemic that swept the school. Both my parents and my grandparents were stripped of their language, culture, ceremonies at American Indian boarding schools whose policy was forced assimilation.
Eventually, my father went on to work at CCC camps. He joined the Army just before World War II hit. After the war my father married my mom and settled down in the Turtle Mountains to raise a family. He utilized his carpentry skills as an apprentice during his boarding school years. However, it was difficult to find work as a carpenter during North Dakota’s relentless and bitter-cold winters. As a result, our family relocated to Portland, Ore., as part of the Relocation Program. Relocation was another government program designed to move Native people off reservations and into cities. It was another effort at assimilation.
We would travel home to the Turtle Mountains most summers, where I would plead with my parents to let me stay with grandparents or cousins, dreading to go back to school in Portland. I was the only Native kid in school, teased mercilessly, called names like squaw, and jerked around by my braids on the playground.
But having been separated from their parents, and sent to boarding schools, mine wouldn’t let me stay so far from them.
I enrolled and completed two years at Portland State University. This was the early ’70s, and it was the era of the Black Power, Chicano Power, Women’s Lib, Gay Liberation, anti-war movement. And it was a time of the American Indian Movement and Indian Pride.
A time of finding out who I was as a Native person. Because my parents were made to feel ashamed of who they were, they never told me about my culture, language, ceremonies, traditions, pow wows, dance or song.
Who was I as a young Native person?
It’s called an
In fourth grade, the nun
wanted to know what nationality I was.
I told her I was Indian from the Turtle Mountains.
Oh, you are an Indian from India she said.
She brought me brass elephants, incense holders,
and books to write a report for the class.
The kids believed me, called me squaw,
jerked my braids. In middle school, I was Chinese,
in high school, Polynesian.
Then the Portland Indian Center waved me in,
and I was taken in by the American Indian movement,
Indian Power. Tied an eagle feather in my hair,
wore beaded fringe that ticked and swayed.
One day I heard the drum. Time stood still
as I watched the dancers,
moccasin feet patting the earth.
I couldn’t breathe for the beauty.
I listened to the drum’s heartbeat,
I learned to dance.
I danced the Rabbit Dance at Turtle Mountain,
Crop Hop at Fort Yates, Fancy Shawl at Denver March.
Then I was gifted a Jingle dress at Red Lake,
and counseled by the elders.
You are Anishinabe Ikwe,
This is a healing dress
Dance to chase away all that is not good.
Dance to heal your spirit.
I listened to the drum.
I couldn’t breathe for the beauty.
Graduates here today, YOU have persisted. YOU are resilient. YOU are thriving.
As we celebrate this momentous occasion, let us also celebrate the wide variety of heritages and backgrounds represented in our audience today. May we all continue to learn from, and be inspired by one another, and may we go forth from this day with a renewed sense of purpose and determination to make the world a better place. Honor your background, your heritage, by doing so you become human beings that light the world.
I also want to take a moment to address the Native graduates in our audience. YOU have not only persisted and been resilient, but you have also overcome systemic barriers and historical injustices that have made your journey to this point even more challenging. So be confident in your heritage and your background as tribal people and know that you bring a unique perspective and strength to whatever you do next.
As I was about to enter my junior year, I learned of a program here at UND called Northern Plains Indian Teacher Corps. I applied, was accepted, and jumped at the opportunity to return home.
A train traveling the same route that took my father away from his Turtle Mountain home was boarded, only this time it was going in the opposite direction, bringing me home to stay.
UND Teacher Corps helped me be the first in my family — from the days of the buffalo — to earn a college degree.
Earning that teaching degree helped me achieve my goal and dream of teaching on my home reservation, which I did for 22 years.
Graduating with my master’s in Educational Leadership was an unforgettable experience. The gown, the hat, the hood. Standing in line with much younger students, I had an overwhelming feeling that someone was going to come and grab me out of line. That I didn’t belong there. Who did I think I was? I fought the feeling, telling myself, you did your thesis, you passed the written exam, you passed the orals, you earned straight A’s. What is wrong with you? It wasn’t until doing research on female leadership for my doctorate that I came across something called the Imposter Syndrome. For everyone here today, especially females, I can say with confidence, YOU belong. You did the work. Be present. Celebrate this moment.
Returning to UND and earning my doctorate in 2006 was an accomplishment of heroic proportions, especially since Native Americans are less than 3 percent of the population but only 0.8 percent of doctoral holders.
“Stringing Rosaries,” which has been published as a book, was the result of my qualitative interview study done while I was a professor. Interviews with Native American boarding school survivors provided powerful stories that now will never be forgotten. It was an effort of love, wanting to honor my parents, grandparents and the hundreds of thousands of boarding school survivors alive today. The survivors interviewed said, “Tell the world what happened to us.” As long as I have a voice, that is what I will do.
As a nation, Indian Country is still healing from boarding school trauma. My healing has been through dance and poetry. It is such an honor to represent my tribe and North Dakota as the next poet laureate. I hope to honor my ancestors. Poets are storytellers, and even through my two qualitative interview studies done as a professor, storytelling was my theoretical framework.
Ada Limon, current U.S. poet laureate said, “I think it’s important to remember even in this particular hard moment, divided moment, poetry can help us reclaim our humanity. A tool to help us heal, help us grieve. And to remember we are human beings full of laughter and joy.”
When I agreed to do the commencement speech, I put out a plea on Facebook: Help! I need some pearls of wisdom to pass on to graduates!
Not the best idea when you have crazy cousins living on the rez. My cousin said, “Tell them the old Indian proverb:
‘Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their moccasins. That way, you’ll be a mile away from them, and you’ll have their moccasins.’”
You will be known forever by the tracks you leave, so be vigilant graduates. Pay attention.
How you bring about change is up to you. Live life with integrity. Follow your passion. Do the right thing.
I applaud each and every one of you for your incredible achievement today. Embrace the excitement of today.
Thank you all for coming to my poetry reading — even if you are a captive audience — thank you for helping launch my laureate-ship!
I’ll leave you with a quote by Joy Harjo, my favorite poet, “You are a story fed by the generations. You carry songs, grief, triumph, thankfulness, and joy. Feel their power as they ascend within you, as you walk, run swiftly, even fly to infinite possibilities. Pray thankfulness for becoming who you are.”
Congratulations UND Class of ’23!
It’s time to celebrate!
Native graduates, Lets Stoodis! Skooden! Lelelele!