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Tribal college graduates get cultural degrees
Wind River Tribal College graduates Karen Smith and Layha Spoonhunter, both earning an associate's degree in Arapaho studies, were the focus of the sixth annual graduation ceremony on May 18. Photo by Martin Reed

Tribal college graduates get cultural degrees

May 27, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Karen Smith decided to enrolled at the Wind River Tribal College in Ethete to learn about the Northern Arapaho's rich culture.

"I started taking Arapaho classes to learn our language. My siblings, we never spoke the language," said Smith, 49, of Ethete.

After taking the college's four Arapaho language classes, Smith said "it's just barely scratching the surface" with her linguistic knowledge.

"I can pray, I have my own prayer. I can introduce myself and it's motivating my other two kids to begin to learn the language also," Smith said.

Smith was one of two Wind River Tribal College's 2012 graduating class members. She and Layha Spoonhunter, 22, earned associate's of arts degrees in Arapaho studies during the sixth annual ceremony on May 18.

The two joined several others who have taken advantage of the tribal college to learn about subjects unique to the institution while fulfilling their desire to gain a higher education.

"I wanted to learn my Arapaho language and my Arapaho culture, and I always wanted to be a student at the tribal college," Spoonhunter said.

Learning about the tribe's history and culture was a priority for him. "It was a chance to go back and kind of reclaim my heritage," he said.

Wind River Tribal College president Marlin Spoonhunter danced in traditional tribal attire before addressing the audience at the graduation ceremony at the Wyoming Indian High School Tech Center.

"I want to thank our two graduates for persevering through a lot of tough times as they pushed forward to obtain their associate's of arts degrees," Spoonhunter said.

In the tribal college's short history, there have been people 19 years old who have graduated up to senior citizens, he said.

"It doesn't matter what tribe you are, you're all welcome. It's also open to non-Indians that want to gain knowledge of both worlds," Spoonhunter said.

Layha Spoonhunter before the ceremony began talked about the two worlds: "We have to balance the non-Indian and Indian worlds."

"Even when we gain our education, we must never forget where we came from," he said.

He noted that Lander Valley High School did not teach the Arapaho language. "That kind of motivated me to go to the tribal college to learn the language and the history of the Arapaho people and the Shoshone tribe," he said.

He hopes to serve as a role model "to further educate our youth to be proud of who we are and stay true to who we are."

Spoonhunter credits the tribal college for providing the knowledge he sought. "It's given me new perspectives, new opportunities to learn about different tribes and understand the legal issues tribes face every day," Spoonhunter said.

Wyoming Indian High School graduate Crystal LeBeau-C'Bearing, who is pursuing three majors at the University of Wyoming, talked about attending the tribal college during her keynote address.

She recalled enrolling in the college with her cousin to take an Arapaho language class. "It was all strictly Arapaho, no English, no writing," she said.

After class she felt amazed at what she had accomplished. "Can you believe we just did that? We spoke a whole hour of Arapaho," she recalled telling her cousin.

The next day her mother went to the language class with her. "It stays with me a nd I gained a very valuable lesson that anything is possible if you stay with it," she said.

Marlin Spoonhunter spoke highly of the accomplishments of the two graduates.

"Layha did a lot for the college. He went to all of the high schools and he stressed higher education and also stressed health and substance abuse issues" facing the reservation, he said.

Both graduates addressed the audience in Arapaho, thanking those who were important in their success.

"I thank my parents for encouraging me throughout the years to get a higher education," Smith said.

"We are Arapaho. We have a language and culture," Layha Spoonhunter said. "It is our responsibility to pass these ways down to future generations and this higher education is important to pass down to future generations."

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