By Micheal Rios, Tulalip News
“Welcome to our 2022 ceremony to celebrate our graduates,” said Rochelle Lubbers as she greeted the hundreds of family and friends who ventured to the Tulalip Resort on June 14. “We’re so excited to have you all here. Our hearts are beyond full to be in the same room with our community on such a remarkable occasion.
“Reflecting on all our beautiful students today, I thought about all the different journeys they have taken to get here, and how each journey is unique and special. Not a single one had the same walk, but there are some commonalities that they experienced being seniors during a global pandemic. They experienced distance learning and all the challenges with technology that came with that. However, what I’m most impressed with is they exemplified perseverance. Our students overcome these challenges and pushed through in whatever way they had to in order graduate. For that, their entire Tribe is proud of them and that’s why we’re here to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment.”
The triumphant atmosphere was palpable in the Resort’s Orca Ballroom as the unrelenting hopes and limitless dreams from the Class of 2022 took center stage with a stylish graduation banquet.
A whopping seventy-eight high school seniors, accompanied by their loved ones, convened to commemorate the rite of passage. There were traditional songs sang and drummed, words of wisdom from tribal elders shared, opportunities to immortalize the occasion with a visit to on-site photo booth, a decadent buffet-style dinner, and plenty of motivational words offered from Tulalip’s next generation of leaders.
One emphatic message that was repeated throughout the night from graduates, parents and elders alike was a reminder to the praise worthy 18-year-olds that receiving a high school diploma is only the first major milestone on their journey to manifesting their dreams into reality.
For some the dream may be finding a convenient job to establish independence via a one bedroom apartment, or joining the Tribe’s next TERO vocational training center class in order to enter the construction trades and start building up a pension. There are those newly minted adults who are far too eager to start a family of their own, and there are a few who never thought they’d graduate high school and now, having achieved the seemingly impossible, are in search of their next step.
Then there are the awe-inspiring dream chasers. These type of high school grads aren’t satisfied with just the one diploma. They want more; more education, more diplomas, and more experiences than what can be found within the boundaries of the Reservation or Snohomish County. These individuals intend to redefine the expectations of success as it pertains to Native Americans and the education system.
Like, homegrown Tulalip tribal members Tamiah Joseph and Quintin Yon-Wagner. They were chosen as Class of 2022 student speakers and shared heartfelt words to the Ballroom crowd. Tamiah was noted as being a standout athlete during her participation in Rising Stars gymnastics and UNITY basketball, as well as being credited for being a NABI finalist, Tulalip Nationals Champion, and 2022 WIAA District Champion.
“I didn’t think I’d make to this day, honestly. But now I’m here and so thankful for all the support I’ve received. I’m delighted to share that next year I will be attending Multnomah University on a full-ride scholarship to play women’s basketball,” said Tamiah from the podium. “My high school experience was far from what I imagined it would be. From 8th grade on, my academic journey was not easy. However, my experiences have led me to who I am today. Returning to the class room setting after living through a pandemic was a difficult transition, with all the social expectations and norms of everyday high school.
“During my high school journey I was able to experience life outside of my tribal community,” she continued. “From traveling all across the nation for AAU and Native basketball tournaments, to being a part of ArchBishop Murphy playoff runs. I experienced triumphs and failures, but with each I became a stronger person for both myself and my family. I wish all my fellow graduates the best in your future endeavors and hope each of you realizes that your capable of greatness.”
Meanwhile, Quintin shared how the two-year hiatus from the classroom for most students during the coronavirus pandemic may have been a struggle, but when viewed from a certain perspective it only helped prepare them for adulthood. He also credited Tulalip’s Education team, Marysville Indian Education, and the Tribe’s volunteer educators who assisted the community when it needed them most.
“We can all agree this has to be the most abnormal high school experience a student can go through,” Quintin said. “After waiting two long years, we finally came back to school, and we came back stronger than ever. This class of 2022 put their heads down and persisted through all the pandemic struggles in order to reach this stage. I appreciate all the parents and family support systems that adapted to online and at-home learning. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.
“The tough times we had to endure provided us with essential life lessons about priorities, time management, and sacrificing fun for what’s actually important,” he added. “After all the trials of the past four years, we’ve finally made it to graduation. I’m so excited to see where the paths lead each of you and hope that no matter the journey, the destination is fulfilling and prosperous. I’d like to share that I will be attending Central Washington University in the fall on a full-ride scholarship to play football and further my education in Mathematics and Business Administration.”
Becoming leaders of the present may seem like a daunting task to most young adults who have grown accustomed to daily consistency and certain levels of comfort provided by a cushy K-12 education. However, for these Native youth, they’ve been bucking the trend and blazing new paths to academic success for years now without even realizing it. They’ve overcome long odds that said they wouldn’t earn a high school diploma, while breaking down barriers that prevented previous generations from attending college.
For our students, their ability to thrive in the westernized school system and graduate with top honors meant not only proving the doubters wrong, but also proving their ancestors right. The right for future generations to be educated and have the ability to pursue a Bachelors, Masters or Doctorate Degree was something previous tribal leaders fought and sacrificed for. Their vision comes true every time an Indigenous citizen boldly ventures off to a University armed with strength of culture and a tribe’s worth of support.
Natalie Otto soared into Tulalip from the Bird Clan of Eastern Cherokee. Far from her traditional homelands, the Otto family embraced the local community, which allowed Natalie to thrive in and out of school. Natalie participated in ASB where she held the role of Secretary during her senior year, while maintaining a flawless 4.0 GPA. She graduated atop her Marysville Getchell graduating class and for her stellar academic efforts was named valedictorian. She was also awarded Indigenous Student of the Year.
“I’m so humbled to have received scholarships from both the Tulalip Tribes and Marysville. These scholarships will help fund my college education and assist me achieving my next goal, which is to graduate Penn State University with a degree in fashion,” shared Natalie post-banquet. “My great-grandmother Dr. Lee Piper was heavily involved in our Cherokee culture and instilled in her family a dedication to becoming educated. My whole life, my goal was to become valedictorian. In doing so I honor her legacy the best way that I can.”
The final two awards given out on the evening were the coveted Tulalip Senior Students of the Year. Having spoke already, where he detailed his college plans, it was no shocker that Quintin was announced as the first student of the year. He was described as holding a 3.7 GPA, being a National Honors Society member, four-year varsity letterman in football and a 4x defensive player of the year.
The second Tulalip Senior Student of the Year winner was the four-year wrestling standout, three-year letterman earner for football, National Honor Society achiever, 3.67 GPA toting and proud Diversity Club member, Brianna Williams. Her educators describe her as having an abundance of positive energy that shows through with her stellar leadership, work ethic, athletic brilliance, compassion for others, and exceptional commitment to improving both herself and the world around her.
She has earned many accolades during her high school tenure, but what stands out most is her humility and willingness to embrace challenges and new learning opportunities. This is summed up best by her dream to become a civil rights attorney.
“The current school system wasn’t meant for us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t break those stereotypes. It doesn’t mean we can’t change the system from within and build ourselves up to make real change in the world,” explained Brianna with a beaming smile. “I’d like to thank my mom for everything she’s done to support me on my educational journey. She made it possible for me to dream of being a civil rights attorney. If that doesn’t work out, then hopefully another career in law because like our leaders tell us all the time, our Tribe needs lawyers and judges who understand our people. Through education, we can make this dream a reality.”
The annual graduation banquet culminated in a ballroom’s worth of support hooting and hollering as each graduate strutted down the red carpet to a podium where education staff and school district representatives awaited them. Each inspired-Native was given congratulatory handshakes, hugs, and a stunning Pendleton travel bag as a graduation gift.