Graduates radiate achievement on summer solstice

By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News

Every time a Tulalip graduates from a university, community college, or vocational school, they instantly become the living embodiment of what it means to reclaim a narrative. For so long, our people were shut out of academic environments where they could share their truths, where they could proudly embody the vibrant traditions and teachings of their thriving Coast Salish culture. 

Previous generational barriers to equitable education access ultimately helped proliferate the unfortunate, yet still prevailing, narrative that says we can’t succeed within a westernized education system. United States census data supports this misguided narrative by showing that while more than 65% of high school students attend college, only 19% of Native American choose to do so. In an era where education is a critical cornerstone for self-sufficiency and quality of life, only 13% of tribal citizens age 25 and older hold a college degree. 

These statistics and others may attempt to draw a bleak conclusion in regards to our people and education, but the truth is, more than ever before, we are seeing the narrative reclaimed and rewritten by present-day Tulalip scholars. This generation is actively pursuing all levels of college degrees at a historical rate. In doing so, they are intentionally decolonizing educational pathways for their peers, their children, and for future generations who will have shining example after shining example of Tulalips strutting across a graduation stage and proudly receiving their hard-earned Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree. 

This culturally-led reclamation process was on full display during this year’s summer solstice. The astronomical first day of summer coincided with a special banquet that recognized the amazing efforts of fifty-seven Tulalips in their pursuit of higher education.

“You’ve all put in so much hard work and countless hours of studying to earn your degrees. We are so proud of you for choosing to better yourself, your community, and your future through education,” said Chairwoman Teri Gobin during her opening remarks. “As a tribe, we know we need to be better at utilizing your brilliant minds and supporting our college graduates. As we continue to grow our business operations and evolve as a tribal government, we want you to feel welcome to build a career with us.”

It was a powerful moment when the words washed over the graduates as they sat with their support system of family and friends in the Tulalip Resort’s Orca Ballroom. It’s the hope of Tulalip leadership that many of the graduates will consider finding their professional homes within the Tribe’s vast enterprise. 

Several college grads being recognized on this evening had been diligently carving meaningful roles in their traditional homelands for years now. In fact, of the six Master’s degrees and one legendary Doctoral degree celebrated this year, all but one of these inspiring tribal members are well established within the Tulalip Reservation as a professional in their field. Furthermore, all of these collegiate trailblazers are women. Together, they radiated not only all the achievement vibes, but that unique matriarchal energy that comes from a deep and sincere lived desire to better themselves, their families, and their shared tribal community.

Each of the attending Master’s degree wielding matriarchs were willing to share a little insight from their collegiate journeys and heartfelt words of encouragement.

Chelsea Craig *Doctor of Philosophy* –  Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary assistant principal. 

“My biggest motivation has always to been to honor my great-grandmother Celum Young who was a survivor of the Tulalip Boarding School. I like to think that this achievement brings healing to her spirit because we weren’t supposed to be here today. None of us were supposed to be here in 2024 as full, intact Coast Salish people. They tried to do everything within their means to destroy my great-grandmother’s identity, and her experience is what set the tone for me and my path.

“Looking forward, I hope that I’ve opened pathways for even more Tulalips to strive for a college degree. If I can do it being a full-time educator and a mother of four, then so can so many more of our people. Beyond that, I want our people to know they are capable of great things without having to lose themselves in the process. Each stage of my educational journey I never compromised who I was as a Tulalip. From how I wrote my papers and who I sourced, I was very intentional about quoting our ancestors and wisdom warriors. I hope people furthering their education are conscious about centering their culture always. Take it, claim it, and own it. That’s how we embody our sovereignty.”

Natasha Fryberg *Master of Arts* – Hibulb Cultural Center rediscovery manager 

“I’ve always looked at education as a priority in life. Being a first-generation college graduate in my family is so meaningful to me because it proves to my siblings and children it can be done. Already, two of my sisters are back in school to get their Associates degrees. Being that role model for my family and my community furthers my belief that anything is possible if you manage your time right and prioritize what’s truly important to becoming your best self.”

Summer Hammons *Master of Arts* – Treaty Rights legislative policy analyst

“Ever since I was a little girl, my mom has been my role model to show me what’s possible when you dream big. She’d be working three different jobs and still be taking college classes because she was determined to earn her Ph.D. With each degree she earned, she utilized them towards her positions to better her people. She instilled that value in me to the point that now I play on continuing my education in pursuit of joining my mom as another Dr. Hammons.

“Something I try to remember always is just how much the Tribe invests in all its members who decide to attend college. It’s really expensive and we are so fortunate to be members of a tribe that prioritize education. On the hardest of days, when I’m lacking in motivation, I think of having the support of the Tribe and all those who laid the foundation for us to have this incredible opportunity. That intentionally drives my passion to be successful, and I hope it does for others, too. We each have a Tribe’s worth of support and investment backing us on our educational journeys.”

Josie Marchesi *Master of Clinical Health Services* – Health Clinic physician’s assistant

“I always intended to further my education in service of Tulalip. Growing up in Ellensburg, I was always so far from the community and our culture. But receiving my degree in health services allowed me to seek employment at the Tulalip Health Clinic. I was fortunate to be offered employment there in January of this year. Now, I am home serving the community. There is a lot of mistrust among our people and the health system because of so much bad history, and I want to be part of the solution in building that trust back.”

Lindsey Watkins *Master of Science* – Tulalip Tribes internal marketing manager

“It was always my intention to go back for my Masters degree after getting my Bachelors in 2007, but the timing never seemed right. Next thing I know I had two kids and was working at the casino. At a certain point, I realized if this was something I really wanted then I just needed to do it. So, I did. I’m glad to set that example for kids so that when they are older and if they choose to pursue a college degree, then I can tell them with confidence that they can do it. It’s going to take time, effort and sacrifice of fun things they’d rather be doing, but it’s 100% achievable.”

Brianne “Breezy” Distefano *Master of Arts* – Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary kindergarten teacher

“I am proof that a high school dropout can become college graduate…a Master’s degree graduate at that. It’s funny looking back because I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher even though my own educational experience was very challenging. Add in being a mother of three and I can sincerely say I never thought this day would actually get here, but now that it has I am so proud of myself for never giving up. My kids have watched me through this whole journey, even coming to class with me at times. They know now what’s possible and that’s something that drives me as the only Tulalip teacher at Quil Ceda Elementary. I want all our kids to dream as big as they can dream.

“For any Tulalip out there, who didn’t get to walk with their classmates at graduation or hasn’t earned their diploma, yet, I want you to know that this moment doesn’t define you. You are all capable to success no matter how you choose to define it. All successes come by way of setting simple goals at first and as you achieve them, you can then begin to set bigger goals. No matter what happens or where life takes you, please remember that you are so capable of greatness.”  

The higher education class of 2024 included seventeen Associate’s degrees, eight Bachelor’s degrees, six Master’s degrees, and one Ph.D. receiving, newly minted doctor. Fifteen vocational diplomas and ten high school diplomas rounded out the 57 Tulalip honorees. 

Tulalip Higher Education staff are eager to help new and returning students find their path to academic success. They can assist with FAFSA applications and finding scholarship opportunities, as well as simply reviewing the Tribe’s current policies regarding paying for college and other educational programs. For those Tulalip citizens feeling empowered to help reclaim our educated Native narrative, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Higher Education at (360) 716-4888 or email