It is always great to get out and meet our students. At the 31st annual American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Student Conference in Rapid City, South Dakota, we had that chance. Native students gather to participate in competitions and celebrate the work they do at the tribal colleges as they pursue a college education and prepare to make a difference in their communities.
The College Fund hosts two banquets at the event to honor first-generation students receiving scholarships from the Coca-Cola Foundation and the Native students named by their tribal colleges as students of the year. Students honored have a chance to speak and meet our president Richard B. Williams. In keeping with the conference theme “Honor the Drum” – the heartbeat of our nations – the students honored also received a special treat from the popular drum group Bad Nation Singers.
The traditional and honor songs that accompanied the prayers, in harmonic symphony with male and female singers, made the receptions memorable. It is the drum groups in Native communities (many of which were honored by the AIHEC host committee during the opening ceremonies of the convention) that keep the songs and traditions alive in their communities.
During the student of the year reception, Grant Weston, on behalf of Bad Nation Singers, told the students, “Remember your identity. We are here as college students, also. Your mind, your ears and your heart need to hear these songs—they’re going to keep you ‘home’.”
Another high point of the convention is seeing the 36 AIHEC member colleges march during the Parade of Flags to begin the general session. As each school is individually announced, the students enter with their flags. The room filled with hundreds of Native students, many clad in traditional regalia, while a blessing was given in Lakota by Wilbur Masteth. Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, said, “It is our hope that others will be encouraged to take a leadership role in preserving our songs and language as we reflect on the future of the seventh generation.”
The conference is an opportunity for students to be inspired and network, but it is also a chance to compete academically, traditionally, and athletically. Students gathered in the halls and common areas of the Ramkota Convention Center and Hotel preparing for their language, history, knowledge, and arts competitions. Earlier in the week the colleges with basketball teams competed in the annual tournament. New to the men’s basketball competition was the inaugural team for the Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) in Sells, Arizona. The TOCC Jegos (Jegos is the word in the Tohono O’odham language for a dust storm that occurs prior to a monsoon) blew in to take third in their first year of the competition.
Into the night and seemingly throughout the entire conference, the traditional hand games competition, an age-old contest, went on. The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) won several top honors in the student competitions, taking home a record 42 awards for the campus, including the hand games competition award, defeating defending champion Ft. Berthold Community College.
The impact the annual AIHEC Student Conference has on Native Americans is huge. Many of the 1,200 student attendees at the convention came together with other tribal nations from across the continent for the first time. Natives from the Northern slope of Barrow, Alaska; the Sonora Desert in Arizona; the Pacific Coast; and the shores of the Great Lakes were reminded of the cultural relevance of their people and the need to preserve and pass on their knowledge and traditions as their own.
Together, these college students have made a difference to themselves by culturally identifying with others and sharing their ideas. The event is empowering as the next generation maintains and evolves its Native wisdom through a college education.
View a slide show of the “Native Bling” worn by the students at the 2012 conference.
Photos and story by Jaime Aguilar, media specialist at the American Indian College Fund