SANTA FE, N.M.— In a room redolent with ancestral and political histories, Michelle Obama recited four generations of her ancestors’ names as she delivered her second-to-last commencement speech as First Lady to an all Native American high school.
Obama stood on a stage bedecked with drums, rugs, beadwork, embroidery, baskets, and pots as she addressed the graduates of Santa Fe Indian School last Thursday. A Santo Domingo Pueblo girl presented her a gift: a Pendleton blanket that she arranged over the First Lady’s shoulders. Tewa dancers from Ohkay Owingeh performed as the graduates entered from two directions and walked in pairs. Many wore ceremonial dress of their pueblos, nations, and tribes.
The students represent a multinational demographic incorporating the 22 tribal nations of New Mexico, including the 19 Pueblos, Navajo Nation, and Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache tribes. The Indigenous Language Institute, which works on language preservation and revitalization, shares the campus.
Michelle Obama’s remarks at the Santa Fe Indian School came eight years after President Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on the 2008 campaign trail and two years after the First Couple’s visit to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North Dakota. Before that July 2014 trip, Indian country had waited 15 years for a presidential visit.
Improving college-and-career readiness among Native youth is the end goal of the Obama’s Administration’s policies on and funding of Native education. Asserting in 2014 that the status quo of schools in Indian country represented a “state of emergency,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell directed the Bureau of Indian Education to transition the elementary and secondary schools that it runs to full tribal management. The Bureau of Indian Education has failed over the decades to make improvements—to remediate crumbling infrastructure, invest in teacher training, implement broadband access, or deliver the behavioral- and mental-health wraparound services that are essential to addressing obstacles to school success. What is notable in the Obama Administration’s Native-education initiative in these final years of his presidency is that this administration—and the First Lady—conceive of full cultural self-determination as a winning model.