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Opinion.  America’s culture war hit close to home this week. 

On Monday, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) was ridiculed on Twitter by right-wing commentator Matt Walsh about an email sent by university officials announcing graduation celebrations for five groups that include Asian, Black, LGBT, Hispanic, and Native American graduates. 

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I have for the past 15 years served on the university’s Native American Advisory Council. Based in Allendale, Michigan on ancestral Potawatomi land, GVSU has a student body of just under 22,000 students according to the university’s diversity dashboard

The celebrations are being held in addition to the spring unified commencement. 

Walsh trashed the graduation celebrations as being “ridiculous.” He whined: "There will be no special celebrations for straight white people, of course."

As of Sunday morning, Walsh’s tweet had about 1.8 million views and triggered numerous responses that appeared to be about 10-1 in favor of his opinion — some calling Michigan “a liberal wasteland” or blaming GVSU for “(setting) back the civil rights movement 60 years.” 

GVSU then got national attention when Newsweek ran a story on Tuesday with a headline — “College Segregating Graduation Ceremonies by Race Sparks Anger” — that some took to mean that the celebrations were separate commencement ceremonies.  They are not.  There is a unified commencement for all students. 

Some folks I spoke with about the uproar thought that I should discount it as right-wing rhetoric and ignore it. That this just another day in the culture wars, where White conservatives were just pushing back on the progress of Native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and Asian-Americans.

But, hold on. Here is where it hit close to home for me. On Wednesday, as a member of the Native American Advisory Council, I was forwarded an email that read: “F*#@ you and your divisive, political, woke a$$ views. Your POS so-called institution of ‘higher learning’ can go to hell!”

While I will admit I don’t fully understand the email author’s true intent beyond spewing some hate, I was alarmed nonetheless given recent events at another nearby university. GVSU’s main campus is an 80-mile drive from Michigan State University, where last month a person walked onto campus and killed three innocent students, while critically injuring five others.  

We know there are unbalanced people in society who commit violence because they're angry. Reading that email made me wonder if this person or others would show up at commencement or any of the special celebrations next month with intent to do harm. Our advisory council would be remiss if we did not consider the possibility.

As an original member of the Native advisory council since its inception 15 years ago, I continue to serve on it — even with a tremendously busy schedule — because we are still working on our original goal to recruit, retain, and graduate Native Americans from GVSU.

That’s no mean feat when you look at national trends for Native American higher education attainment rates. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, completion rates for Native American students are lower from all students overall, though there are signs of progress. The findings show that:  

  • 41% of first-time, full-time Native American students attending four-year institutions beginning in 2013 graduated within six years, compared to 63% for all students.
  • 25% of Native Americans over the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher in 2019, compared with 42% of all those over the age of 25.
  • Between 2010 and 2019, the percentage of Native Americans over the age of 25 who had attained at least an associate degree increased from 21% to 25%.

The educational attainment gap is the result of many factors, including the fact that “Native American students are also less likely to have family members that have attended college,” according to PNPI. 

Given this data, it is absolutely proper for Native American students who graduate to be celebrated. And anyone who knows anything about Native people knows that we are a people who prioritize community first and foremost. For these reasons, an annual graduation celebration has been held, in conjunction with the Native American Advisory Council and the university, for the past seven years. 

We assist with the annual celebrations that are called feasts. Family and friends are invited to gather near the date of the unified commencement. It is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of Native graduates. Those who attend eat Native American cuisine, laugh, and even shed tears of joy — knowing they have overcome the odds that have worked against them and our people for centuries. 

“These intimate celebrations allow for our community to celebrate together. With Native graduation rates the lowest in the nation, celebrating these amazing scholars and leaders not only honors them and their families, but our ancestors and our collective struggle for education,” said Simone Jonaitiss, Ph.D. (Little River Band of Ottawa Indians), executive director of GVSU’s Center for Adult and Continuing Studies and co-president of the Native American Advisory Council.

Lin Bardwell (Little Traverse Bands of Odawa Indians), who is an assistant director in GVSU’s  Office of Multicultural Affairs, says the hateful email this year is not an isolated case. Every year, Bardwell says, the school receives phone calls and emails from students asking ‘where the White graduation is.’ 

The culture war is alarming to us who seek a better world for Native American students. But it won’t stop us. We will continue to celebrate their achievements.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].