Last year, while I was packing up my family in Vancouver, British Columbia for the long drive to Stanford, one of my First Nations friends said to me, “You’re going to California, eh? If you get lonely for Indians, I’ll come visit.”
I figured I’d have to take him up on that offer. Because California didn’t leap to mind, when I thought of my brothers and sisters “below the medicine line.” I thought of Michigan and Minnesota, which I know as Anishinaabe territory. Or North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Arizona. American states with BIG Indian reservations.
As for Stanford, I did imagine it as a campus full of natives. DIGITAL natives. I knew the Silicon Valley as the land of Google, Apple, Facebook — not exactly a hotbed for Native American issues.
I knew my family’s year at Stanford would be an adventure, but I expected we’d get lonely for Indians.
I’m happy to report: I was wrong.
In September, my email inbox began to fill up. Invitation after invitation — to come and eat. Burgers and corn, frybread and stew, Indian tacos. With my belly leading the way, I discovered the Native American Cultural Centre: a home-away-from-home for hundreds of Native American students pursuing their studies on The Farm.
I’m sure you all have rich memories of the NACC. Allow me to share some of mine.
I remember eating doughnuts at 4 AM at the Student Union, where my family joined a convoy of students on a journey to Alcatraz, to honour the sunrise and 511 years of resistance.
I remember the powerhouse that is Mabel Pike — the tender yet tough teachings of a Tlingit elder and moccasin maker who is 91 years young.
I remember tears running down my face — as Anishinaabe comedian and Stanford alum Jim Ruel skewered everything from the Olympics to Sioux Awareness Week.
I remember the amazing 41st annual Stanford Powwow — the first student-run powwow I’ve attended. The first time I ever asked native elders if they prefer sweet buns or flat buns. [That was at the elders dinner, NOT during an intertribal.]
Of course, it’s no small feat to knit together so many students, from so many Nations, into one vibrant group. I raise my hands to Denni [Woodward] and Greg [Graves] and the student staff. Their commitment to this community is like one of Greg’s gigantic pots of stew: warm, nourishing, endless.
I’ll wrap up by offering my congratulations to the graduates, and some unsolicited advice. I’ve had the good fortune to make my living telling stories.
You all came here with a story. Whether you came from the city or the Rez, West or East, North or South, whether you’re full-blood, half-breed, or adopted out, you brought the story of your family — your relations — your people.
Now, you belong to one more family: the Stanford Alumni network. Take advantage of being a member. It’s a powerful tribe. It may benefit you and your people in ways you can’t imagine right now.
Still, remember this: your time here at Stanford is but a new chapter, in a story as old as these Foothills. It is the story of our ancestors. They entrusted us with that story. May their traditions and dreams inspire your journey.
2011 Knight Fellow Duncan McCue was asked to speak at the Stanford Native American Culture Centre’s Commencement celebration over the weekend. This is the text of his talk.