2023 IAIA Commencement—Carrying Connections Forward
The 2023 Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Commencement brought families and friends together for a vibrant intertribal and multicultural celebration of IAIA’s most recent graduates. Making for a spectacular display of tribal sovereignty, flags of tribal nations representing past and current graduates lined the walls of the Performing Arts and Fitness Center gym on the IAIA campus. This year, graduating students from 2022 and 2023 were recognized with 71 degrees and certificates, including 22 master’s degrees and a certificate of recognition for the late DeAnna Autumn Leaf Suazo (Diné and Taos Pueblo, 1992–2021), 36 bachelor’s degrees (one student graduated with two), 3 associate’s degrees, and 9 certificates. Approximately 650 people attended the commencement, while 1,200 people watched it online. Families traveled great distances to attend commencement, including the family of the late MFA student Payton Maria Canku (Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, 1992–2023) ’23, who came from the Dakotas to honor her accomplishments.
Pueblo dancers and singing drummers led the processional into the gym, with a young eagle dancer at the front. Introductions were made by Provost Felipe Colón (Laguna Pueblo) and 2022–2023 Faculty of the Year Dr. Kay Holmes (Mvskoke Creek descendant). Paul Quintana (Cochiti Pueblo) gave the opening blessing in Keres, followed by words of encouragement to the grads in English. Afterward, the guest drum group sang a flag song.
While wearing a stole with the Cherokee language, President Dr. Robert Martin (Cherokee Nation) gave a welcome speech recognizing the graduates, their supporters, their families, student mentors, IAIA faculty, and IAIA staff. He also gave a special shoutout to mothers, grandmothers, and aunts, on account of Mother’s Day landing on the following day. Dr. Martin shared a profile of the graduating class. Grads ranged in age from 17–61, including parents and grandparents and a high school student. 35 represented the average age of the grads—32 for undergraduate students and 41 for graduate students. The highest number of students from any tribal nation were from the Navajo Nation, followed by Acoma Pueblo and the Caddo Nation. Students came from 19 states, with the top states being New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, and Washington. Two grads are originally from First Nations in Canada. Over 80% of students were Indigenous.
“You represent 32 Indigenous sovereign Nations whose flags are beautifully displayed here in our gymnasium,” Dr. Martin said while gesturing. “And that’s very important to recognize those nations and tribal sovereignty. We know that this college exists because of treaty obligations of the federal government, the trust responsibility. So, our ancestors sacrificed so much, in land and other things, so to be able to show these flags and respect tribal sovereignty, that’s very important here at the Institute of American Indian Arts.”
Loren Kieve (Cherokee Nation), IAIA Board of Trustees Chair, then introduced the board of trustees and honored guests, followed by an introduction of commencement keynote speaker Jeffrey Gibson (member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent). Dr. Martin stepped forward to award Gibson an honorary doctorate of humanities on behalf of IAIA and gifted Gibson an IAIA Pendelton® Blanket with the art of Bennie Buffalo (Southern Cheyenne).
Dr. Jeffrey Gibson delivered his commencement speech, congratulating the graduates and sharing practical, heartfelt advice derived from his artistic journey.
Congratulations to the Class of 2023! What a wild experience the past few years have been in the world, and I know that the instability has impacted us all in very personal ways and challenged us to find meaningful and intentional ways to move forward in the face of uncertainty. These past five years have caused myself and others to reconsider our priorities and values and make significant changes in how we place ourselves in the world. I am speaking specifically of the Covid-19 pandemic; the activism and protest of Indigenous, Black, and Brown communities to demand safety and equal justice; the increasing disparity between the rich and poor, and witnessing the impacts of global climate change as they continue to affect us all.
I know it seems like a real downer to bring these issues up right after congratulating you on your graduation, but I think it is important to offer some context of the times we are living in and also the times in which this graduating class has successfully accomplished a major achievement in spite of these challenges. This takes strength, perseverance, intelligence, and vision, and you should all feel extremely proud and empowered by what you have done. You all represent the tip of a centuries-old lineage of creative thinkers and makers who have found ways to create and dream, invent, solve, and bring new paths forward in extremely turbulent times in the past. You represent the present and the connection between the past and the future. Again, congratulations, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we are proud of you all and can’t wait to see how your talents unfold.— Excerpt from Jeffrey Gibson’s 2023 IAIA commencement speech.
After Gibson’s speech, graduate, undergraduate, and certificate candidates were presented onstage by Provost Felipe Colón, Interim Academic Dean Charlene Teters (Spokane) ’86, and Dean of Students Nena Martinez Anaya. They recognized the students for their achievements and announced their plans. The ceremony was punctuated by applause and cheers from friends and family—some yelled out names and phrases such as “That’s my son!”, “That’s my buddy!”, and “That’s my roommate!” The graduates were photographed with Dr. Martin to mark the occasion. Dr. Martin then conferred the degrees as the graduates stood and moved the tassels on their caps.
2023 Valedictorian Adensunset Gerart Levy gave a speech recognizing the IAIA community’s support in his academic success.
I’m from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and for the past four years, I’ve gained an immense amount of respect and love for the Institute of American Indian Arts. As many of you know—and many of you will come to find—IAIA is one of the most welcoming places you could ever go. Everyone shares respect for one another, and this allows the community to thrive. So it’s reassuring to know that I found myself among this graduating class and this community.
Due to the opportunity given to me by the George R.R. Martin Literary Foundation, I’ve been able to achieve my goal of going to school while staying at home and maintaining a very close relationship with my family….
IAIA is a space to create. It’s a space to learn, and one of the most profound things I’ve learned over the past years at IAIA is that it’s ok to fail. But learning that it’s ok to fail takes a lot of failure. But all jokes aside, it is something that will be a constant throughout our lives—as artists, as people. Acknowledging and being content with failure is a process. So always be looking for how to make it work, and turn “I can’t do that” into “I can’t do that yet.” This past year I was struggling to find myself. I felt very lost. And through the friends and my classmates, I was able to persevere and stay the course, and now I’m able to tell my family that I’m graduating college. — Excerpt from Adensunset Gerart Levy’s 2023 IAIA valedictorian speech.
After Kieve’s closing remarks, Dr. Martin led the board, staff, faculty, honored guests, and graduates in the recessional with an eagle staff while the drum group sang and drummed upon their exit. Attendees headed to Café Bon Appétit, which served 700 visitors for lunch following the commencement ceremony, while the gym was quickly reconfigured for the 2023 Spring IAIA Graduation Powwow.
For the News Media
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Photographs by Jason S. Ordaz, Nicole Lawe (Karuk) ’16, and Tira Howard