American Indian Studies professor Craig Stone handed four graduates an eagle feather that was blessed and sung over while a multigenerational group — featuring elder gentlemen and a young boy — beat a large drum in unison.
“If you take these feathers and you pray with them, they will help you to think about the direction in your life … to know your path,” said Craig Stone, American Indian Studies program director and professor.
Among the eight cultural commencement ceremonies featured on campus, the American Indian Cultural Graduation honored indigenous students and students in the program with academic regalia and drummed native folk songs in the University Student Union ballrooms on Saturday.
During the event, Stone talked much about indigenous history on campus, mentioning events such as CSULB’s introduction of the American Indian studies classes and the reburial of Native American remains and artifacts on university grounds.
“In 1968, ethnic studies began in the CSU system up in San Francisco, and then American Indian Studies began in Cal State Long Beach,” Stone said.
He echoed the sentiments of students from Sherman Indian High who later came to Cal State Long Beach and their push for the recognition of AIS.
“They decided that we need to teach about [indigenous] people, that there’s voices and stories and epistemology,” Stone said. “There’s ways of thinking, thoughts, philosophy and history that was not being taught.”
Fast-forwarding nearly 50 years, the university has continued efforts in advocating for indigenous peoples. Stone talked about the reburial of Native American remains that took place last summer. CSULB was the first university in the United States to rebury the ancestors of a land under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act on campus grounds.
NAGPRA requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American artifacts to their respective grounds.
“There’s all these people, all these families, who’ve done all these things for the reburial,” Stone said. “There’s lot of people that thought [the reburial] would never happen, but that happened last summer.”
Many recent alumni were recognized for having a close affinity with the native community in Long Beach and beyond.
Graduate Heidi Lucero gave three people including AIS lecturer Cindi Alvitre a red quilt with NAGPRA sewn in the middle.
Lucero, among a few others, donned a basket hat at the event to signify cultural identity.
“We wear it as a cowboy would wear his cowboy hat,” Lucero said. “And it’s part of what I do. I’m a basket weaver so I actually weave hats like this in baskets. It’s just something to show my cultural identity.”
Efforts to improve the American Indian studies department are still developing.
According to Stone, thirty-five years ago, AIS had no exclusive office and no secretary. Four years ago, AIS had four to five part-time faculty members, three students pursuing an AIS minor and no partnerships with other departments and colleges. Currently, AIS has 14 students pursuing minors and two pursuing certificates, nine to twelve part-time faculty members , a half-time secretary, twenty partnerships across the university and an own office.
Nicholas Osife, a native graduate in mathematical economics and applied mathematics, talked about the lack of opportunities in mathematics in his early education.
“My interest in mathematics delves early on, but as a native student on the reservation some of the opportunities to learn the things I was interested in just weren’t there,” Osife said. “I remember I didn’t learn algebra in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth [grade]. I really just believed that the only reason that I’m here is because of my grandfather and my late grandmother encouraged us to explore anything that we were ever interested in.”
Graduates felt a need to continue furthering and contributing their work to native communities. Leslie Jimenez, who earned a doctorate in education, related her individual achievements to her whole community.
“An event like this, in a way, is like acknowledging and reminding us of who we are and reminding us that our culture still has value,” Jimenez said. “So it means more than just a ceremony. It’s empowering, it’s healing, it’s, for me, an honor. I honestly wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for my ancestors, who are all the indigenous woman and my community who have been here before me.”