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Little Thunders — Advice, medicine for Antioch graduates

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A version of the following remarks was given as the commencement address at the Antioch College graduation ceremonies on Saturday, June 26, held virtually.

My name is waa-sey-aa-ban — meaning “it is the first light at dawn.”

I belong to the Anishinaabe people from White Earth Nation — Gaa-waabaabiganikaag — enrolled in the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from the Otter Tail Pillager Band of Indians.

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We acknowledge and hold accountability to our ancestors, our knowledge keepers, including the land and our non-human kin. We acknowledge ancestors who came before us, and youth who will continue keeping and sharing our knowledge for generations to come.

I am honored to be here with you as you transition into new spaces, taking on new roles within new communities. This renewal probably seems like it is about time — a long time coming. This has been the longest year in my own lifetime; I’m sure you all feel the same.

I’m here today and I agreed to speak with you for a few reasons. First, I care deeply about you; I’m picturing your faces right now. I’m in awe of you. As people who have dedicated the past four years of your life in pursuit of learning — not just of information. I know Antioch. You were there learning and questioning, thinking about how to learn, what to know and why, and how you will put your understanding to use. You will make the big sacrifices, you will build a fire within you and maintain it.

As Horace Mann said in his famous Antiochian quote, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” He said this here on the Antioch campus. In the same year, he took his journey home, collapsing and dying in 1859.

Fifty years before Horace Mann delivered that speech, another famous person said something similar. In 1810, Chief of the Shawnee, Tecumseh, said: “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place.

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.  Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.” 

For me, these both remind me that we are not to be in separation or isolation — we are conditioned to isolate ourselves from our intuition, from our voice, from our bodies and from our loved ones. 

I distinctly remember, after graduating from college, the feeling of sadness, mixed with a little fear. I felt this way because I suddenly realized that I now have that knowledge — but what I learned about myself is that I don’t know much at all. I learned that the people in charge also have a lot to learn.

Over the course of a lifetime, the project of education — and the promise of education — has left so many of us unfulfilled and disembodied. In this time of online experiences in education, we had to entrust digital screens to deliver the tenderness, warmth and connection we’ve been denied. Sometimes this connection is denied our whole lives. Yet, in spite of the overwhelming machine of education, there still remains a deep desire for union and intimacy within us.

It is this immutable desire which will help bring us back to the Earth, to all living creatures and to each other. There is no doubt that this reunion will be difficult and messy, given our estrangement from each.

And so I offer you — graduates of Antioch — advice grounded in my Anishinaabe teachings of a way forward in all four directions.

East is the direction of beginnings, and the teachings from the east remind us that all life is spirit — the wind, earth, fire, and water, all those things that are alive with energy and movement. It is the direction that the sun rises — the first light of dawn, new beginnings for each of you. For any one of you who will be heading east for your journey into the next phase, I offer you this medicine.

North is the direction that reminds us to slow down and rest. This is also the direction that represents your most difficult teachers. Elders, pipe carriers and the lodge keepers reside in the north. Their teachings help us to embrace all aspects of our beings — especially our physical bodies — so that we can feel and experience the fullness of life. If you are headed north, I offer you this medicine.

West is the direction of the setting of the sun. There are many little deaths that end the things that need to be gone from our lives. West recognizes that old thoughts and feelings need to die, and new ones can emerge. Our hearts are also represented in the west — new loves, new passions. For those of you who are heading west, I offer you this medicine.

South is the direction of release. Birds migrate south for the winter. It is fire and creativity. It is the tails of two snakes making a spiral, an eternal transformation. South represents growing up, no longer being a child and shedding your skin for a transition to adulthood. You will find balance if you head south. For those of you heading south, I offer you this medicine.

Those are the four directions — but I offer you one more for Antioch, and that is the direction of center. It represents the fire within you and your responsibility of maintaining that fire.

My advice? Know that you will never be done. You will always have the job of learning, of educating yourself, of connecting to what is real. In your lifetime, go as far as you can in all directions — and sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

MIIGWECH (thank you).

*The writer belongs to the Anishinaabe people from White Earth Nation and is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from the Otter Tail Pillager Band of Indians.

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