Best-selling author (‘Firekeeper’s Daughter’) Angeline Boulley addressed the morning graduates of UW-Green Bay’s 2022 Spring/Summer Commencement; with three key take-aways and a reminder that stories are good medicine… Her speech follows:
“Boozhoo! Ahniin! Angeline Boulley, Miskwa Mukwakwe, nindiiznikaaz. Mukwa dodem. Bahweting endjoonjiibah. G’chii miigwetch. Hello! My name is Angeline Boulley. I’m a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I’m Bear Clan, and from Sugar Island which is between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Garden River First Nation. Miigwetch (Thank you) for this opportunity to return to Green Bay and share in your special day. My previous visit was last fall, and it was your first in-person event.
I love introducing myself in this traditional Anishinaabe way! It connects me to my community and celebrates that our language and cultural teachings are still here . . . because of stories. Storytelling is how we share what it means to be Anishinaabe (Indigenous).
I was raised on stories. My dad is a traditional firekeeper. (Yes—I really am a firekeeper’s daughter!) He tells stories while tending ceremonial fires at our tribe’s fasting camp and other cultural events. Firekeepers ensure that protocols are followed because ceremonial fires are different than ordinary campfires. You don’t roast hot dogs, or talk politics, or even gossip around a ceremonial fire. Only good thoughts and words to feed that special fire.
My own college experience is full of stories — of lessons learned both in the classroom and beyond it. I wasn’t a great student during my undergraduate years; but I did excel at extracurricular activities. There were a few watershed experiences during my years at Central Michigan University that impacted my life in huge ways.
First, when I was a freshman the university hosted an event for BIPOC students with school administrators from various offices on campus – like Financial Aid, the Registrar’s Office, Admissions, Academic Advising, etc. The purpose was to provide an opportunity for students to talk with administrators about any difficulties we were experiencing so the university could address obstacles and barriers impacting student retention.
I remember talking to Mike Owens, the Director of Admissions about the lack of recruitment efforts in Michigan’s tribal communities. I mentioned that for a university with a Indian reservation three miles from campus, it seemed odd that less than one percent of the 16,000 enrolled students were Native American. A few months later, I was offered a part-time job in Admissions coordinating and hosting Native student recruitment activities. My first campus visit was with high school students from the local tribe – many who said they had never stepped foot on the campus that was less than five miles from their homes.
TAKEAWAY: Asking questions can lead to answers you never expected.
I was also a Resident Assistant in the dorms. I accepted a Residence Hall Director position at Northern Arizona University after graduation. My plan was to earn a master’s degree in counseling, so living and working in a dorm made a lot of sense…except that, once I got there, I didn’t like it at all. I was burned out on dorm life. And this first step in my career was not working out the way I’d hoped. I was surprised to discover that I missed the smell of water in the air. I’d always lived near water and had taken for granted the way an approaching storm smelled. I was homesick for Michigan. So I did a very un-Angeline thing and quit my job at the end of that first year. I didn’t have a job or place to live back home, but I did the thing that scared me because it just felt right. A cousin who worked at CMU let me stay at her place while I figured out my next move. I had copies of my resume in my backpack as I walked across campus and ran into Mike Owens, my old boss in Admissions. He invited me to a meeting that afternoon he was attending with the local tribe’s new Education Director. The meeting would cut into my job- and housing-search but I felt obliged to accept his invitation. At the meeting the new Education Director mentioned a last-minute vacancy for a student advocate at the local middle school — serving as a liaison between the tribe, the public school, and the students and parents. I retrieved a copy of my resume, handed it to the new director, and he hired me on the spot. That was how my career in Indian education began.
TAKEAWAY: Sometimes our plans don’t work out the way we expected. It’s okay to cut bait and reinvent your life. Finding out what you don’t like, what you don’t want, is a valuable teaching – especially at the beginning of your career.
I ended up becoming the Education Director for that tribe about twelve years later. Part of my job included traveling to Washington, DC for the National Indian Education Association’s annual visit the Hill event where we would get updates about federal funding and programs and then visit our Congressional representatives. I remember listening to the Director for the office of Indian Education in 2002, I think. Her name was Vicki Vasques and the way she spoke about the work she did, I thought, that would be my dream job. To advocate for all Native kids on a national level.
Well, flash forward fifteen years. I was working as Education Director and Assistant Executive Director for my Tribe when I decided to run for our tribal council. I knew I’d need to find a different job because my campaign would ruffle some feathers and I’d probably get fired. So I ended up talking with a fellow tribal member who worked for a company called Tribal Tech. It was a Native American woman-owned small business that provided training and technical assistance and federal contract management for a variety of federal agencies. The owner was Vicki Vasques – the former OIE Director. I was hired and worked remotely on 2 contracts with the U.S. Department of Education. Working for Vicki was incredible. After three years, the OIE Director position opened and I really wanted to try for it. I was nervous to talk with Vicki about it. She said I would be missed greatly on those contracts, but that she never wanted to stand in the way of someone pursuing their dream.
I got the job and served as the Director for the Office of Indian Education at the US Department of Education. It was an incredible experience. I traveled to schools and tribal communities and worked with people who wanted to improve public schools for our Native students.
TAKEAWAY: You never know who you will meet along the way. A chance meeting can turn into a job. We cross paths with so many people and some can seem like guardian angels along the way. You never know when you might meet again. A person who has your dream job can become a boss or colleague, and even a friend. The world is a smaller place than you think.
It was during my years in Washington DC that I finished writing my debut novel—”Firekeeper’s Daughter”—a story about an Ojibway young woman claiming her Indigenous identity and finding her place in her tribal community and beyond. Every experience in my life—both the great times and even my mistakes and painful lessons learned—shaped that story and my own story. Stories are good medicine.
As you celebrate your accomplishments today, may you be among people who cherish you and cheer you on to whatever is next in your journey. Be brave. Take chances. Pursue dreams. Practice self care. Be the hero of your story. May it be a thrilling and satisfying adventure.
Aho. (That is all.)”