June 30, 2023

Class of 2023: Indigenous graduation celebration honours record number of UCalgary grads this year

Donor support of Indigenous student awards and programming helps set the stage
Elders Dr. Mike Bruised Head, left, and Dr. Clarence Wolf Leg present Indigenous graduate Begiizhik Nahwegahbow with a traditional blanket
Elders Dr. Mike Bruised Head, left, and Dr. Clarence Wolf Leg present Indigenous graduate Begiizhik Nahwegahbow with a traditional blanket. Ramsey Kunkel Photography

Begiizhik Nahwegahbow is quietly watching a colleague scroll through hundreds of photographs taken during the recent Indigenous graduation celebration at the University of Calgary. Up pops an image of her beaming as Elders drape a ceremonial blanket over her shoulders.

She shakes her head and laughs. “I don’t think I could stop smiling.”

The joy captured by the photographer that day — June 3 — is unmistakable. Having earned a BA in law and society, Nahwegahbow appreciated the opportunity to reflect on challenges met and obstacles overcome, to rejoice with fellow Indigenous graduates, and to celebrate in traditional fashion.

It was a powerful moment, made possible in part by philanthropy — generous gifts from donors who appreciate how important these experiences are for students.

Performing the final song of the traditional round dance

Performing the final song of the traditional round dance.

Ramsey Kunkel Photography

“The one thing that kept pushing me forward … I’m doing this for my ancestors, I’m doing this for my grandma, my grandpa, my aunts and my uncles, my mom, my community,” says Nahwegahbow, a member of Anishinaabe First Nation from Birch Island, Ont., on Lake Huron.

“I come from a family of residential school survivors. I knew they were all there behind me. And it’s like, ‘I did it.’ It felt like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Like many of the Indigenous graduates, Nahwegahbow participated in convocation at the Jack Simpson Gymnasium earlier in the week, then attended the Indigenous graduation celebration — which is always on Saturday and always outdoors. The event was held near the Cenovus Spo’pi Solar House. Green space accommodated two tipis as well as a tent for the Elders, who hailed from the Treaty 7 First Nations, allowing grads to celebrate in an environment rich in tradition.

“I felt very seen,” says Nahwegahbow, now administrative co-ordinator for UCalgary’s Writing Symbols Lodge, an on-campus space that offers academic, personal and cultural support to First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. “As an Indigenous grad, there was not only recognition from the university, but to have my culture and traditions as part of that was really important. It was overwhelming — in a very good way.

“I don’t even know if words can describe it because it’s such a personal and intimate experience — and I know it was for a lot of the Indigenous grads that were there.”

Guests participate in ceremony

When their names are called during the ceremony, students are encouraged to have their guests accompany them to the front. “This part is very informal,” says Karen MacDonald, MBA’22, manager of Writing Symbols Lodge, which hosts and organizes the event. “But people have described this as being more intimate because you get to soak up [the experience]. Your family can come up and help you celebrate.”

MacDonald points out that the event doesn’t take place without support: “That’s one of the backbones.” Writing Symbols Lodge, too, benefits from the generosity of donors.

Lori Egger and Steve Laut established the Writing Symbols Lodge Award, an endowed bursary that supports Indigenous students

Lori Egger and Steve Laut established the Writing Symbols Lodge Award, an endowed bursary that supports Indigenous students.

Ramsey Kunkel Photography

I think the Indigenous graduation is very important,” says Dr. Lori Egger, BA’87, MSc’90, PhD’94. “We had an opportunity to attend when my niece graduated from the Faculty of Education several years back.”

In 2019, Egger and her husband, Steve Laut, BSc (Eng)’79, established the Writing Symbols Lodge Award, a bursary to support Indigenous students pursuing undergraduate degrees at UCalgary. Having Indigenous family members, they had been aware of systemic discrimination and barriers preventing Indigenous Peoples from fully accessing resources available to others. Truth and Reconciliation discussion in recent years provided the spark to create the endowment.

“Our hopes are two-fold,” says Egger. “First, we hope that the bursary will help deserving students reach their goal of higher education by taking some financial pressure off. Second, we hope that, by contributing to Indigenous initiatives ourselves, it will encourage others to do the same.”

Adds Laut: “We hope that additional educational opportunities will help in a very small way to contribute to Indigenous leaders in the future.”

Traditional gifts for graduates

This year, the Indigenous Graduation Celebration honoured 85 graduates, a record number, and attracted more than 600 guests.

As part of the celebration, grads received traditional blankets produced by the Boy Chief Trading Post at Siksika First Nation. Beaded medallions, handcrafted by Tsuut’ina artist Teena Starlight, BEd’99, were also given out. For Métis grads, there were sashes, while eagle feathers were presented to students getting doctoral degrees.

Having completed her master’s degree, MacDonald herself took part in last year’s ceremony. The experience only strengthened her belief in the power of the Indigenous graduation celebration.

“Really meaningful,” she says. “The majority of Indigenous students walk two worlds — you’re in the non-Indigenous world, then you come home and live in the Indigenous world with your family. Just getting a degree as an Indigenous person is a tough thing. You have to overcome so many barriers just to be there in the first place.”

With Writing Symbols Lodge and those who back it in their corner, Indigenous students have more support in getting past some of those barriers — and pursue their education goals in a culturally appropriate environment.