8th grade graduation

It’s the time when scheduled appointments are picking up because it’s the end of the school year. Aside from the ballet performance and it’s multitudinous rehearsals, Miss T is due to graduate from middle school and then my daughter will be a high-schooler. It’s more of an adjustment for me than for her. Am I really old enough to be the parent of a high school teen? Apparently I am.

Tara with sash and certificate from Honor Day

Thursday we attended a Native American honoring ceremony for all the Portland 8th grade and 12th grade graduates. It was lovely, and held in the beautiful Native American Student and Community Center on the PSU campus.

Tara was not sure what to anticipate for the evening, though she acquiesced to my urges and humored me by attending with a good spirit. I told her on the way that it would be the more interesting graduate ceremony, even though the one with all her class mates next month would be more fun.

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“I expect tonight will be filled with Indian tradition that we are unfamiliar with. There will probably be drums.”

“Drums? Really?”

“Well, at my brother’s graduation there were drums because many of his classmates were Indian.” My brother graduated from Chiloquin High School in Oregon, where I knew Modoc and Klamath families.

I had guessed correctly, but it was easy to guess: drums play a significant role in many ceremonies. An evocative, pleasant-smelling smudge was lit in the background and the drums began. We stood for the Presentation of Colors, in which elder men presented the flags honored. They marched/danced with the drums, in a line around the entire room, headed by the Eagle Staff (upon which there was an actual mounted eagle head). At the end of the parade was the POW/MIA flag. The last flag makes me curious, and I’d like to know more about why this group is particularly honored by our Indian group. Likely the relationship comes from the importance of the military in Indian communities, as the modern expression of warrior service.

We all filled our plates with baked salmon and many excellent side dishes. While we finished up our feast, the speakers began. One of the senior graduates was Rebecca Kirk, a young woman who sang an extraordinary song for us, blending an indigenous language (I don’t recall which) with some soulful English chorus. She beat a drum as accompaniment.

Introductory remarks were followed by a stirring keynote speaker: Louie Gong. Mr. Gong described his ethnic background as Coast Salish, Chinese, Scottish, and maybe something else, I can’t recall. He was raised on a reservation in northeast Washington by his Indian and Chinese grandparents. He is a teacher, activist, and artist. He spoke to finding his true self amidst people who try to define him by what they see. He spoke about trying to fit in, and the difficulties of doing that when his background didn’t match those around him. He struggles with frustration of being known as the “Shoe Guy,” when he wants people to know the powerful work in activism that he does.

I thought it was a good message for my Tara, who had felt out of place all evening because she is distinctly blonde, and of course the room was filled with dark-skinned, black-haired people. I know what she feels. I always want to belong, and yet I so rarely find a group of people that feel like “home” to me. I anticipate that some of Louie’s message sticks with her, and I am grateful to him for choosing that particular topic.

The graduates then filed up to the stage and were presented with a sash and certificate. Students remained in front until every person was lined up, then the entire room got in line to shake hands and congratulate every student. It was truly an honor to them. I hope my girl felt support from some of those many hands.

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