A roar of clapping hands, cheers and the echo of a drumbeat filled the pavilion on the blacktop behind the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) as 16 students dressed in black caps and gowns turned their tassels to the left — congratulations to the Many Nations Academy class of 2024.

“I must say that I have felt loved and supported throughout my time here,” said Edwin Brown, Tlingit and Selawik, addressing a crowd of over 100 as they received their high school diploma. “Although I have had struggles within myself, my family and my education, I've always been able to fall back into the Two Spirit community here for support and resources. And I truly appreciate that.”

Emily Saint Maria, Cowliz, gave a lei to Edwin Brown, Tlingit and Selawik during the graduation ceremony at NAYA’s Many Nation Academy on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Aislin Tweedy / Underscore News)

On the second Thursday in June, 16 students walked across the stage in Native blanket print stoles with the embroidered logo for the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). This year marked the 17th graduation ceremony at Many Nations Academy. Seven students joined the over 150 who have received their diplomas from Many Nations Academy since its inception in 2006.

Tashubi Blackowl, Rosebud Sioux, receives a blanket after graduating from NAYA’s Many Nation Academy on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Aislin Tweedy / Cronogomet)

For the first time in the history of graduations at Many Nations Academy, nine students received their GED certificates during the graduation ceremony.

“We did it ya’ll,” said Tashubi Blackowl, Rosebud Sioux, with a huge smile on her face as she received her GED certificate. “There were many times I wanted to quit and not continue my education. But I pushed myself to get here.”

Chardonnay Sanchez, Shoshone Bannock received her blanket, certificate and lei during graduation from NAYA’s Many Nation Academy on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Aislin Tweedy / Underscore News)

Before receiving their high school diploma or GED certificate, each of the 16 graduates practiced one of Many Nations Academy’s 10 core values: Munk k’ilapay-palach, which means giving. Each student handed out four medicine bundles to people in the crowd who helped them on their journey to get their degree. 

The other nine core values at NAYA are: Kimtəks khanawi tilixam (respect); Munk pus wik t’uxəlqa-hayásh, wik t’uxəlqa-hayú (balance); Łush khanawi kaku-ixt ntsayka (community); Kimtəks ul-la (tradition); Munk lush-təmtəm khapa khanawi-laksta (kindness); Nanich kwanisim saxali (pride); Munk pus hilu-ipset-təmtəm (accountability); Kimtəks xluyma-tilixam (diversity); and Munk kakwa tayi-tilixam (leadership).

“The fact that all the students had an opportunity to speak and really embody the core values by giving back and gifting, just having that moment to acknowledge, is really different,” said Auna Castellon, college and career readiness manager at NAYA.

Paradis Mars, Hawaiian and white, gives a medicine bag to Many Nations Academy Spanish Instructor Mare Mairez during graduation on June 13, 2024. (Photo by Aislin Tweedy / Underscore News)

Traditional values really set this graduation apart from ceremonies often seen at public high schools. The ceremony began with a blessing offered by Oregon State Representative Tawana Sanchez. A drum circle made up of three young girls and four elders welcomed the graduating students forward. Each graduate was wrapped in an Eighth Generation blanket after receiving their diploma.

Emily St. Martin, Cowlitz, NAYA college prep coach, gives a blanket to Ezahbelle Mosqueda, Siletz, Yakama, Lummi during her graduation from Many Nation Academy on June 13, 2024, at the Native American Youth and Family Center. (Photo by Aislin Tweedy / Underscore News)

All the colors of the rainbow were present on the ribbon skirts and beaded graduation caps as the 16 graduating students listened to words of encouragement and love from community members who have been part of their journey so far. 

“We’re here for you well beyond high school. After all, we’re a family,” Tamara Henderson, Laguna Pueblo, chief operating officer at NAYA, told the students. “Remember, pride is a core value. It’s okay to be proud.”

Tashubi Blackowl, Rosebud Sioux decorated her graduation cap to say, ‘I did it.’ Blackowl plans to study cultural preservation. “My older sister, I got to watch her graduate in her lifetime before she passed away,” Blackowl said. “And so I wanted to graduate today because I wanted her to see me do it too.”

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...