Star-Studded Indigenous Graduation Ceremony Honors 2020 Graduates

Protecting the sacred means protecting history, and protecting history means improving the future.

This was the glowing lesson that emerged from Protect the Sacred’s virtual graduation ceremony, honoring indigenous graduates from the class of 2020. 

Held in late June, the ceremony featured over two dozen speakers and performers, both members and allies of the Navajo Nation. Graduates from college, high school, technical school and beyond were celebrated by artists, actors, state representatives, doctors, directors, fellow students and more—including: Ava DuVernay, Mark Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson, Zahn McClarnon, Sean Penn, Wilmer Valderrama, Paul Rudd, Dawn-Lyen Garnder, Chris Evans, Taika Waititi, Piper Perabo, Jewel and Jordan Nolan.

Star-Studded Indigenous Graduation Ceremony Honors 2020 Graduates

From encouraging speeches to spoken-word poems to freestyle rap to traditional dance, a unified message emerged from this community of role models and leaders: Protecting the sacred means a lot of things, but doing so in any way ensures a brighter future for us all. 

Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, said graduates must understand their accomplishments should motivate them to pursue all that they desire:

“The future is open for all of you […] The Navajo people have gone through some challenging times throughout our history […] and that same blood of resilience is going through your veins, pumping through your hearts. So don’t give up on anything you want in life.”

His encouragements were echoed by other speakers, including several native poets: Tazbah Chavez, who told graduates, “I call you the future,” Tanaya Winder, who declared, “You are the ones we’ve been waiting for, the ones we’ve been praying for […] when we rise, we do not rise by ourselves,” and Rowie Shebala, who said that for indigenous students, “graduating is an act of rebellion.”

Many speakers reinforced their messages with direct calls to action. Actors like Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Tessa Thompson and Sean Penn urged graduates to make sure they are marked in the 2020 census, and emphasized the importance of voting. The speakers pointed out the power in these acts and the importance of utilizing that power to the fullest extent possible. 

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Even amongst the chorus of uplifting encouragements and inspiration, no one gave the impression that life as an indigenous person in the U.S. post-graduation would be a walk in the park: Many of the speakers drew on their own experiences of discrimination and hardship to convey a message of empowerment for younger generations.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay spoke of her struggles as a Black woman in the film industry and her needing “to go around the traditional walls” to accomplish her dreams. She continued:

“The beautiful thing about these important times were living in— those traditional walls are collapsing. And you, class of 2020, you stand at the edge. You’re poised to walk in, to pick up the pieces and the rubble and to build your world, your way.”

Many voices at the event emphasized how the history and stories of the Navajo people—and, crucially, the surviving history, the elders alive today— need to be protected. Whether that means wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, voting, following one’s dreams or rebuilding the world, the event called on indigenous graduates to protect the sacred, in all the ways they can. 

The world stands on a precipice. In this moment, the project of building a better future falls to these graduates, and if this event is any indication, they are well-equipped with the support, wisdom and strength to do just that.

Congratulations to the indigenous graduates from the class of 2020! 

Protect the Sacred began this year as an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis among the Navajo Nation. They strive to educate, empower and protect the Navajo Nation during and beyond these trying times.

You can watch the full event below.


Gavi Klein is a senior at Brandeis University majoring in American studies with minors in Italian studies and journalism. She is a contributor at Ms.