Aug. 13, 2021
Indigenous students celebrate graduation
After pausing in-person celebrations for two years due to COVID-19, the University of Calgary’s Writing Symbols Lodge hosted a cultural ceremony for 72 Indigenous students to honour and recognize their graduation from undergraduate and graduate programs between fall 2019 and spring 2021.
“It was a particularly emotional celebration,” says Writing Symbols Lodge manager Karen MacDonald. “These students overcame many remote-learning challenges on top of their rigorous academic obligations.”
This year’s celebration included a Circle of Honour presented in 10 segments over two days in June to reduce crowd sizes. The event was presided over by Traditional Knowledge Keepers who played a critical role in the ceremonies; they provided the prayers, smudging and blessing of the gifts given to students. Elders also provided counsel in the planning of the revived event and the colours chosen for the medallions. Elder Rod Hunter performed the University Honour Song that he had gifted to the university.
MacDonald says the event was a chance to honour traditions and protocol. “The great honour of having Elders Reg Crowshoe and Clarence Wolfleg wear their ceremonial head dresses was very significant,” says MacDonald.
In honour of their accomplishments, students were gifted with a traditional blanket and beaded medallion. Metis students received Metis sashes, and PhD graduates received eagle feathers. This year, Writing Symbols Lodge had Blackfoot and Cree artists create beaded medallions for graduates with the Writing Symbols Lodge logo.
“All of us at Writing Symbols Lodge are so proud of our graduates,” says MacDonald. “We have supported them in their journey to reach this milestone. We have watched them overcome barriers – some, like the pandemic, quite significant – and work hard to get here. It is a moment of pride for all of us as we watch them succeed.”
Significance of gifts
Each of the presented gifts has significance to Indigenous culture. The blanket signifies honour and recognition of an individual’s achievement, wrapping the students in the knowledge they have gained, while beading is a traditional representation of Indigenous history and legacy. The Métis sash symbolizes pride and identification.
Of special importance is the gift of eagle feathers for PhD recipients. “Eagle feathers are culturally revered by Indigenous people,” says MacDonald. “Speaking from the Cree perspective, eagle feathers are one of the most sacred items with the Cree culture and are treated with great respect. When gifted an eagle feather, the recipient must protect and guard it as it represents a connection to land and to the Great Spirit kihci-manitow in Cree.”
Writing Symbols Lodge’s celebration of Indigenous graduates is held once a year, and the next one is expected in spring 2022.
ii’ taa’poh’to’p, the University of Calgary’s Indigenous Strategy, is a commitment to deep evolutionary transformation by reimagining ways of knowing, doing, connecting and being. Walking parallel paths together, ‘in a good way,’ UCalgary will move toward genuine reconciliation and Indigenization.