2010 Keynote Address

2010 Commencement Keynote Address - Erma Vizenor, Chairwoman, White Earth Band of Ojibwe

The following is the transcript of the Keynote Address given by Erma Vizenor, Chairwoman of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, at the 2010 College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Commencement Ceremony. Click the following link to hear the audio recording of her address.

Erma VizenorFirst of all, congratulations graduates. I am so proud of you. On this memorable night of accomplishment, in your life it is truly an honor for me to be here to share your celebration. 38 years ago I sat much like a place where you are sitting; a freshly minted graduate of then Moorhead State University, now Minnesota State University -Moorhead. And you know, I do not remember a word the commencement speaker said. What I remember vividly are my emotions of joy, elation, gratefulness. So many people helped me. Relief. No more papers, no more exams, and the immense pride of graduating from college. Tonight, my message is simple. It is a message from my heart, not my head. I wish to share with you some truisms that have guided me throughout my life. In my Ojibwe Anishinabe culture, when people reach the age that I am, and have lived through many experiences, have seen, heard, and learned many lessons in life, it is our responsibility to share these lessons, wisdom, and pass them onto others; especially our younger people.

I feel very blessed that I have lived an interesting, fulfilling, and satisfying life. As I think about my journey, from childhood to present, I have very few regrets or things that I would do differently. For the most part, I would do everything all over again. I was born and raised in a loving family. The eldest of eight children, one of whom deceased at childbirth, very poor in material necessities, but rich in love. I know what extreme poverty is. At the same time, I know the blessings of love and sacrifice. As I remember my dad and mom always ate last to make sure there was enough food for us children to eat at our humble table. Sharing and love sustained us.

Truism 1: Love generously. Say I love you to others and truly mean it. The material wealth is not that important when we think about it. The world is full of those who are less fortunate than we are. Show your love in action. Help others. Share your time. Nothing is greater than to know someone loves you and someone cares about you. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination have been a part of my life every single day because I'm an American Indian; a different culture, a different color skin, hair, and eyes. Oh, no one calls me a wild little Indian any more. Or tells us "you Indians are so lazy"; "no you can't charge your lunch today" which were the actual words of our school Principal. My brothers and I left school that day and walked home 20 miles. Today there are laws that prohibit discrimination, but it is still alive. Discrimination has gone underground; it's just more difficult to prove. Today racism is subtle. It's like carbon monoxide. To many people you can't see it, you can't hear it, you can't smell it, you can't touch it, but it's there and it's deadly to you, to me, and to society. Let me explain. Two years ago I was invited to be a panelist at the Governor's summit on after school in St. Paul. It was the last panel of the summit so I sat and listened to many expert presentations on youth, the statistics, the demographics, data, and so on throughout the day. As the day went on, I was becoming more uneasy and more uncomfortable. I began to ask myself "why am I here?". The last panel was called and it was my turn to speak. I did not sit and speak from the panel table. I got up, walked around the table and spoke to the crowd. Pointing in the direction of the large overhead screen I said, "I cannot recognize your statistics on youth. There is not one reference to American Indian youth. I cannot recognize your data. There is not one reference to American Indian youth." It is tragic to experience prejudice, it is tragic to experience discrimination, but what is most tragic is to experience invisibility; to not exist at all. American Indians do not exist here. And I went on to say, "you know that up to 47% of the youth in the Minnesota juvenile correctional system are American Indians. We American Indians comprise 2% of the population in Minnesota. This disproportionate number of our youth in corrections has no existence at this summit." And I said more. The point is the invisibility of the American Indian youth at the state summit is the subtle racism I'm talking about. If I was not there or did not say anything, well everyone would have gone their way and at least the ignorance about American Indians would have continued. Racism comes from not knowing or understanding or even being aware of who are different than we are. Is it intentional? No, it's not intentional. People are very good, people are very kind. But simply put it's the lack of education, and I know we can do something about that.

Truism 2: Change begins with you and me. Let us educate ourselves, do not become indifferent, do not become bitter. Let us be open minded. Let us seek to learn. Understand others who are different than we are. Where ever you are, be the difference to educate. To build and develop healthy relationships between peoples and cultures; in the school, in the workplace, communities, churches, synagogues, summits, or in the halls of legislatures and congress. If you and I do our part, graduates, the world will be a better, more inclusive place. I've always been a dreamer. I was a child of eight years old when I wanted to become a medical doctor so I could help children, like my little brother. I watched my little brother cry because he had ear aches. My parents could not afford to take him to a doctor. My dad would warm cloth pads on the wood stove and place the warm pad on brother's ear until the inner ear ruptured and the pain subsided. I said to myself, I'm going to be a doctor someday. It was a big dream. I did not become a doctor. Instead I became a doctor of education and I continued to dream. I still dream today, big dreams. I dream of a greater tomorrow than today. I dream of what is possible; justice, equality, peace and opportunity for all. I now understand that my dreams are visions as the tribal elders say.

Truism 3: Dare to dream big dreams. Pursue your dreams. Dream and work for a better tomorrow. Robert Kennedy said, "There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not". 38 years ago, there were very few American Indians that graduated from college. Fewer yet returned to the reservation. Degree under my arm, I returned home to the White Earth Reservation where I worked an entire career in education. I believed I could do the most good at home to change the environment of persistent poverty. I believed then, and I still believe today, that education is our ticket out of poverty. When I left for Harvard, my community of Pine Point sent me off with these words, "Humanitarian as you are, take another great step out into this world to gather fresh flowers and fruit to bring back to your homeland and people for better opportunities".

Truism 4: Use your gifts, talents, and education to help others. Where there is a need go and do your best to make a positive difference in the lives of people. In 2004, I was elected the first woman Chief to lead the largest tribe nation in Minnesota. Two years prior, I had lost my re-election for Secretary/Treasurer, the second position in tribal government. It was a divine loss, meant to be from Manidoo God that I became Chief. At my inauguration I said, "As your tribal chief, I have made a vow to our creator and to myself and now to you that I will be fair, just, open, and good to all people. I am here to serve every person regardless if you voted for me or not. The days of patronage, vindictiveness, fear, insecurity, anger, are over. Gone at White Earth. We are here to work together, respect one another, forgive one another, and love one another. My leadership will be a different kind, a different one than in the past". I have had to prove myself. People were not sure. Will she fire me and bring in one of her relatives or friends to take my job? I had overcome a long history of nepotism, patronage, and favoritism. Today the people of White Earth believe me because I have walked my talk. Tribal staff and employees feel secure about their jobs. They are free to express their ideas, to disagree, to be creative, and to solve problems. That expression of ideas and creativity does not happen in an environment of intimidation, insecurity, and fear. Today the White Earth nation is one of the most progressive tribes in the state of Minnesota and the country. I pray to leave a legacy of integrity, honesty, fairness, respect, grace, and yes, progress.

Truism 5: Be fair, be honest, be just, be kind, and give respect. Will there be challenges? Yes. Don't give up. Walk your talk.

Thank you. Great spirit bless you where ever you go and whatever you do.