The Houma Municipal Auditorium filled with life as tribal leaders and members beat rhythmically on drums and the United Houma Nation chief chanted.
Led by tribe members traditionally dressed, about 60 students in Terrebonne Parish’s Indian Education Program proceeded to their seats for the annual graduation ceremony tonight.Ā
The federally funded Indian Education Program serves students with documented American Indian heritage by offering assistance with classes and helping them to connect to their heritage through field trips and workshops.
The auditorium was packed with families members and friends supporting the students.
Kirby Verret said it was “the most highly attended gathering” yet.
The Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, United Houma Nation andĀ Pointe-au-Chien tribes were all present.
Several members of the School Board and the superintendent were also in attendance.
Guest speaker Tatanka Means, anĀ actor and stand-up comedian of the Navajo, Oglala Lakota and Omaha Nations, offered the students a mixture of advice, anecdotes and laughs.
He started from his experience having no plans after his own high school graduation to trying out different things before finally landing in his current career. He then spoke on the importance for the seniors to keep moving forward, the different definitions of success and the need to recognize that life won’t be easy.
“Life is hard. Being Indian is hard,” he said. “Being a smart, disciplined person is hard.”
Tatanka told the graduates to remember their roots are unique.
“We are indigenous to this land,” he said. “Your roots are here and always will be.”
He encouraged them to use their voice as Indians to speak up and oppose the ignorance that still exists across the country about their people and the sacrifices made to make the United States. And ensure the tribes still have a future.
“Our ancestors fought every day so we could live,” said Means. “We owe it to the past, present and future to give life our best effort.”
He also passionately warned the students against drinking alcohol at any point in their lives, saying it would only bring hardship and ruin lives.
Means had some practical advice from his mother.
“She told me, ‘There’s only two things in life that matter most,'” Means said.
“‘What is it? Love? Family?,’ I asked her. She said, ‘Your insurance and your credit score.'”
The crowd began to laugh.
Each high school handed out certificates to their seniors, and then several students returned to the front of the auditorium to receive awards from their tribes for the highest GPAs.
Senior Mariah Hernandez-Fitch, who will attend Dartmouth College in the fall, earned multiple academic awards for having the highest GPA of all women in the program and in the Houma tribe.
After the ceremony, Hernandez-Fitch said the ceremony was even more meaningful than the actual graduation that will occur in a couple weeks because it acknowledged her heritage. She said she appreciated being recognized by her community.
“It’s almost like a sense of family,” she said.