I was selected by the Monument Valley High School Class of 2022 to be their guest speaker (motivational speaker) at their graduation on May 21, 2022. It was truly an honor to return to a place that molded me in so many ways. I wanted to share my speech, because I know many people were unable to attend in-person or might have missed the livestream. Below is my speech to this year’s graduating class.
Yáʼátʼééh, shik’éi doo shi dine’é. Shi ei Shandiin Herrera yinishyé. Naadiin’ashdla’ shinaahxai. Táchii’nii (Red Running into Water Clan) nishłį́, Naakai (Spanish) bashishchiin, bitahnii (Within His Cover Clan) dashicheii, Naakai (Spanish) dashinalí. Ákót’éego Diné asdzáán nishłį́. Shimá doo shizhéʼé ei Jenae Adakai-Herrera doo Jose Herrera wolyé. Shimasani ei Lorita Adakai wolyé nit’ę́ę́, shicheii ei Tilman Adakai wolyé nit’ę́ę́. Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii déé’ naashá. Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund ei bá naashnish.
First of all, I would like to say congratulations to all of our graduates! 7 years ago, I stood in this very position delivering my speech as senior class president though I have no idea what I said, I remember how I felt excited, proud, and a little bit nervous about the future that lies ahead after walking across this stage to receive my diploma. I’m sure all of you are feeling one or all of these emotions right now.
Graduating from high school is a milestone, the closing of one chapter, and the opening of a brand new one. Each of you will leave here today feeling accomplished, and ready for the next opportunity. As I reflected on my time here at MVHS I realized how essential this community has been in shaping my character, challenging my weaknesses, and reminding me of my “why”. In 2015, I graduated, packed my bags, and moved across the country to North Carolina. In Durham, North Carolina, I joined a brilliant community of scholars (and some pretty talented basketball players if you ask me) at my dream school – Duke University. As the sole Diné asdzáán (Navajo woman) in my class, I faced challenges unprecedented to me.
I often felt ostracized and questioned my own ability to fit in that environment. In those challenging moments, when I felt homesick, when I felt insignificant, I remembered this (hand gesture to the crowd). I remembered our community, the many people in my corner supporting me, and believing in me long before I believed in myself. Instead of trying to fit in at Duke, I decided to stand out, and as our former first lady, Michelle Obama put it, I worked until my weaknesses became my strengths.
In 2019, I walked across the stage and received my bachelor’s degree from the Sanford School of Public Policy as the 2019 Terry Sanford Leadership Award winner, an award to a graduating senior that demonstrated exceptional leadership in their time at Duke. In my moccasins, turquoise, and dress shimá (my mother) made me, I proudly accepted my award. I was described as having “outrageous ambition”. Of course, as the overthinker I can be, I thought to myself, outrageous – why is it so outrageous for a Navajo woman to challenge an institution like Duke, to demand the same level of respect and support for Indigenous scholars that our non-native peers enjoyed. Why was it outrageous for me to excel in an environment that was not built for me, and in fact, was built to break me down. However, what Duke didn’t know is that as Diné (Navajo), we know how to persist, adapt, and excel. As you leave the reservation, enter new spaces of education and professions, remember that when people see you, they see all of us, our entire community. It is a big weight to carry, but if you allow it to be, it can be the greatest honor.
To me, knowing I am representing all of us, my family, my friends, shi’diné’e (my people), makes me courageous. I left Duke feeling empowered and strong, strong enough to come home.
Growing up I was always told that I had potential. Potential to be a great student, a great candidate for scholarships, and even potential to get into a top ten university. I’m sure many of you have your own list of potentials or expectations. Somewhere along the way all of this potential trickled over into ideas of success. Very early in my life I knew that I wanted to be successful, even if I didn’t quite understand what success truly is. I wanted to make my family and my community proud and I wanted to honor the sacrifices of my ancestors, who endured much worse so that I could be here today – living, breathing, and dreaming in dinetah. My early ideas of success were shaped mostly by the expectations projected onto me by my teachers, community members, and adults in my life. Success meant leaving the rez, obtaining a quality education, and creating an entire life for myself. This idea of success was linear, seemingly attainable, but definitely easier said than done.
As I moved through my college years, I felt myself yearning to be home. Food trucks in Durham reminded me of our Wednesday flea markets, the dirt roads I walked on to work while living abroad in Cusco, Peru made me miss Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley), and working in Washington D.C, writing memos about our land and our people, made me miss Dinétah (Navajo Nation) even more. My biggest fear was that somehow coming home meant I failed. I began wondering why we as a nation continue to send our brightest scholars and hardest workers away on a one-way ticket. Why do we teach our children that their talent is only deemed successful if manifested off the reservation?
I don’t have the answers, I’m not sure anyone does. But, I knew that despite what was expected of me, I needed to follow my heart. My heart led me home. If I’m being honest, my journey home felt much more difficult than my journey off the rez. But, I have always lived my life knowing that if I follow my heart, my mind will follow and that any challenge that arises is worth overcoming if it meant I got to wake up every morning in Dinétah. Being secure in knowing who I am, and even if I didn’t have a plan of what my career or life would be, I’ve always maintained a vision for myself. I also have had to completely redefine what success meant for me and figure out who I am as a Diné adzaan (Navajo woman). So instead of asking myself, “what am I going to do? I began asking myself, “ who can I be, and how do I become this person?” My biggest challenge was actually not navigating college and being away from home, it was putting more energy into my own dreams and manifesting a vision for myself rather than trying to meet the expectations others had for me.
Not only was I able to return home immediately after college, but I was extremely fortunate to be proximate to my family and community when the COVID-19 pandemic started. Now, I am a believer that everything happens for a reason, and my experience working throughout the pandemic almost seemed serendipitous, but I knew that I was home for a reason, and that was to step forward and protect our people in any way that I could. In March of 2020, I joined 12 Navajo & Hopi women and co-founded the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. We had one goal: protect our people from covid. Through crowdfunding and donations, we were able to raise over $18 million and provide direct support to families throughout the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation.
From food and PPE distributions to hauling wood and water for families, I experienced an entirely new level of k’é (Navajo kinship), and what it truly meant to show up for our people. I have had the honor of working alongside an incredibly selfless team, and throughout the last few years, have truly grown into the person I have always wanted to be – brave, kind-hearted, and altruistic.
This is my story and my success. Not leaving the rez, not excelling in college, not the awards and recognitions, but taking all of my small wins and paving a pathway home.
My final question is, what is your idea of success? Redefining success meant untangling a childhood of insecurity and embracing my personal hopes of community development. Each of you has it within your power to write your own story, and define what success means for you. I want to remind you that every day begins and ends with you, so do what makes you happy and what makes you proud. Start each day with the intention to help one person – even if that one person is you. As you continue your journey through education, leadership, career, and personal growth remember to always take care of yourself. Surround yourself not with people who drain you, but people who uplift you and support you.
Whether you leave here today top of your class, or relieved you somehow managed to make it to graduation day, know that your journey matters, and whether you realize it today or not, you are an inspiration. You’ve managed to remain dedicated to your future, even amidst a global pandemic.
I know I can speak for everyone here when I say, we are in awe of the determination and perseverance each of you have showcased. After years of being unable to convene in person, being here today with all of you is truly a blessing. I hope all of you enjoy each other’s company and the celebrations with your families.
I wish each of you nothing but the absolute best in your endeavors. I am excited to see the incredible opportunities you will pursue. I would like to end by saying thank you. Thank you to our parents, grandparents, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria cooks, administrators, and everyone who played a vital role in supporting our youth – this is also a moment for all of you to celebrate. As you receive your diploma today and enter your next chapter, always remember – ONCE A MUSTANG, ALWAYS A MUSTANG.
Ahéhee (thank you).