First Lady Michelle Obama came to listen to the 2016 graduating class of the Santa Fe Indian School. And then she spoke from her heart.
The conversation began outside the Pueblo Pavilion on Cerrillos Road, where some dozen people stood for hours where they guessed her motorcade might pass by and so she possibly might see their banner urging freedom for longtime Lakota political prisoner Leonard Peltier, whose last hope for clemency is in her husband’s hands.
Inside the auditorium, where every seat was occupied, the audience patiently waited for the First Lady. The stage, where Mrs. Obama would deliver her message, was decorated with drums, colorfully patterned blankets, shawls, weavings, painted ceramic pots, intricately woven baskets, arrays of bougainvillea and deers’ heads with racks.
In attendance were the governors of most of the 19 Pueblos who own and operate the Santa Fe Indian School, as well as New Mexico cabinet officials, the mayor of Santa Fe, and cultural figures like Ricardo Caté, the editorial cartoonist at the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Everywhere people clutched bouquets of roses, tulips and carnations for the graduates, or were wearing flower wreaths or corsages. Smiles were abundant, as were thumbs-ups, back-slaps, high-fives, fist-bumps, hugs and kisses. The occasional baby cried, elders yawned and napped, teens chewed gum and flirted.
Mrs. Obama floated in, escorted by Columbia University-bound Valedictorian Emanuel Vigil (Jicarilla Apache) and University of New Mexico-bound Salutatorian Chyanne Quintana (Ohkay Owingeh/Santa Clara), and was met with cheers and a standing ovation. A sea of cameras were raised overhead to capture this first moment of a promise fulfilled—the First Lady of the United States had traveled all the way across the country to honor these young Native students and their guests with her presence.
She and the Secret Service officers charged with her protection quickly integrated into the ceremony and listened to the drumming and chanting of two men whose sonorous voices filled the vast auditorium. Spirits were stirred by the Tewa Dancers of Ohkay Owingeh. Again symmetry was a key aesthetic—there were two powerful men dancing in Buffalo headdresses, two vigorous women adorned with eagle feathers meeting the men step for step, two musicians. This processional dance harkened to the Buffalo Dance, a winter dance offered to a First Lady in the late winter of her tenure. It is also fundamentally a dance about resources for human survival, and in that sense, profoundly political.
The dancers held carved and painted lightning rods festooned with feathers, and shook rattles as they danced two by two down the center aisle, from the back of the hall toward the stage, where the First Lady stood with the school’s Board of Trustees, Superintendent Roy Herrera, Principal Dr. Felisa Gulibert and honored students.
The graduates, largely wearing traditional dress, followed the dancers down the aisle also two by two, linking arms. The graduates were walking into a dream come true, bedecked with leis, braided ribbons, beaded fringe, embroidered sashes, turquoise necklaces, garlands, fur pelts and colorful belts. While they moved to fill the first few rows as they took their seats, the dancers stepped to the lip of the stage under the smile of the honored guest.
The dancers were thanked for their blessing and an Invocation in prayerful words spoken in Isletan Tiwa was offered by Brandon Lujan (Isleta), who spoke quickly to the spirits gathered there.
Gulibert, who joked that she was “facilitating the agenda of the meeting,” made several introductions so Mrs. Obama, and the rest of us, would understand in whose company she was gathered. Gulibert praised Herrara for his “kindness, openness, willingness to listen, and advocacy for students and staff.” His Welcome address acknowledged everyone—the school’s bus drivers, cafeteria workers, even the overflow crowd in the gym next door and those watching virtually. He likened the students to butterflies who had moved through the stages of their education from pre-school to the current moment of graduation, conjuring the concept of a butterfly’s metamorphosis—which proved to be one of the unstated but primary themes of the day’s event. (Another was exceeding expectations; another resilience in the ugly face of American racism.) He asked the crowd “What sacrifice did you make today to be a part of this great celebration?”
Valedictorian Emanuel Vigil thanked the Creator “for bringing us here today.” He thanked the First Lady “for coming to our home… inspiring us with your presence.” With a laugh he thanked Lady Gaga “for giving me the power to be myself,” then weepingly, he thanked his parents for sending him to SFIS, where his classmates have “proved the stereotypes all wrong.” To his classmates he simply said: “You are prepared and you are loved.”
Mrs. Obama was welcomed to the podium as “the mother of our nation,” and she addressed the graduates as a mother might speak to her children, saying over and over how proud she was of them, as they beamed that pride back at her. While she adhered pretty rigorously to her prepared remarks, sometimes she deviated from the script. “I wish I could spend a whole week with you,” she declared. “I love you all so much.”
She personalized the history of the African American experience, and shared her family’s roots in 19th century American chattel slavery. Her remarks seemed geared toward moving beyond a sense of connection between her and the audience, which was already palpable in the hall, to something deeper, something more akin to identification.
I am the great-great-granddaughter of Jim Robinson, who was born in South Carolina, lived as a slave and is likely buried in an unmarked grave on the plantation where he worked.
I am the great-granddaughter of Fraser Robinson, an illiterate houseboy who taught himself to read and became an entrepreneur—selling newspapers and shoes.
She spoke of values, claiming the shared values of respect, perseverance and integrity, three of the ten core values of the Santa Fe Indian School. She remarked on the hopeful, positive trajectory of the school and the accomplishments of its students.
And the endless military drills and manual labor that those early students endured have been replaced by one of the best academic curriculums in the country, and over the years, you all have proudly represented this school in chess tournaments, science and robotics competitions, and every kind of internship and leadership conference imaginable and nearly all of you are going on to college, earning more than $5 million in scholarships.
She pled with the students to seek help if they find themselves struggling at college or in other future endeavors. Like she was speaking to her own daughters, Malia or Sasha, she looked the kids in the eyes, paused and said: “Do you understand me?”
Student presenters Shilyn Platero-Fisher (Diné/Paiute) and Fatima Garcia (Santo Domingo) presented the 2016 graduating class’ commencement speaker First Lady Michelle Obama with a gift of thanks for “protecting us as your own children.”
“In bestowing this sacred blanket, which is a symbol of unity, you are welcomed into our community as our own people,” they told her. They placed it around her like a shawl blanketing her in the comfort of their gratitude and respect; she stooped a bit to help them.