‘The beginning of the rest of their lives’: Powwow recognizes Fond du Lac graduates and more
Four drums performed in the center of the school’s gym, including the school’s drum Debwewidam – “he can be heard from afar.”
CLOQUET — Drums thundered Sunday, April 30, in the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College gym as the school marked the end of the 2022-2023 school year.
A few hundred people came to the school’s annual pre-graduation powwow. Preceded by a feast, the powwow is partly meant to recognize the 126 students who are set to formally earn a degree later this month. It’s also a chance to mark the end of the year, the changing of the seasons and more, according to Roxanne Delille, the college’s dean of Indigenous and academic affairs.
“We want to make sure that we acknowledge our students. They worked really hard to complete whatever their program is,” Delille said, noting that some students take more than two years to earn an associate degree from the school. “It’s the closing of one thing and it’s an opening of another … both the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the end of their academic career, the beginning of the rest of their lives.”
A quartet of drums performed in the center of the school’s gym: Storm Cloud, which is from Leech Lake; Cedar Creek, a drum from the nearby Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; the Sugar Bush Family drum from Nett Lake in the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa; and the college’s own drum called Debwewidam – “he can be heard from afar.”
One of the graduates celebrated Sunday is Valerie Zhaawendaagozikwe, 31, who is set to earn an associate degree in American Indian studies and environmental science, plus certificates in Anishinaabe language and environmental sustainability. Zhaawendaagozikwe said she took a “detour” in her life and struggled with addiction. She has been sober for more than 7 years. Feeling complacent in a job at a treatment center, she enrolled at the college in January 2020.
“I was like I want to do more with my life, and I want to show my kids that there’s more to life than just working a tech job or a weekend job,” Zhaawendaagozikwe told the News Tribune. “So I decided to take up the language and the science.”
She’s set to be the school’s commencement speaker. Zhaawendaagozikwe is dually enrolled in the Long Plains First Nations in Manitoba and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington.
At the college, Zhaawendaagozikwe studied the rings of trees to determine the last time people here had performed a traditional controlled burn of area forests. Her findings indicated that those burns hadn’t happened regularly since the mid-1800s, approximately the same time that the U.S. government began pushing Indigenous communities onto reservations.
“We’re trying to bring that research to Washington, D.C., to help change fire policy so we can start doing prescribed burns,” Zhaawendaagozikwe said. “To help our forests so there’s less wildfires and it’s safer for everybody. … We’re so used to hearing Smokey the Bear, that fires are bad, and we’re just trying to change that narrative.”
Leaders from the Fond du Lac Band, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center performed experimental burns in May 2022. They were reportedly the first in decades , if not longer.
Other near-graduates at the powwow were Tasheana Rule-Garcia, 34, and Dominic Smith, 21.
Rule-Garcia, a Fond du Lac Band member, is set to earn a degree in multimedia production that she plans to use while running Tasheana’s Photography, a business she started during her first semester at the college. She enrolled in 2021 to pursue an associate degree in small-business entrepreneurship, but switched to multimedia production because of her interest in videography and animation. Rule-Garcia said she wants to make a Native American cartoon.
“That’d be awesome,” she said. “Now that I’m graduating, I can spend more time on that.”
She plans to parlay her associate degree into a four-year degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Smith, a member of the Nenana Native Association in Alaska, is set to receive an American Indian studies degree this month. He said he wants to work for a museum at some point, or, perhaps, teach high school. Frustrated with online classes at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas in the summer of 2021, Smith searched for tribal schools that were holding in-person classes and found Fond du Lac.
“I found this college, in the span of two days I moved up here,” Smith said. “I was like, this is either going to work or isn’t.”
He said he plans to head back to Haskell to earn a four-year degree in American Indian studies.
FDLTCC’s graduation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 11, in the school’s gymnasium.
This story originally omitted one of the drums used in the ceremony. It was updated at 6:44 p.m. April 30 with the drum's name. The News Tribune regrets the error.