Fort Washakie Stories Part V: Graduation Day

May 29, 2015

Fort Washakie High School is a small, struggling school on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The students there have been pushing towards one major goal: graduation. And, today, as part of our series on the school, we’ll hear some of those students cross the finish line. 

As family and friends file into the Fort Washakie gymnasium, the class of 2015 is outside posing for a final group photo. English teacher Mike Read offers a quick pep talk as he snaps his camera shutter.

“I want you guys to know—all of you—that I’m very proud of you and very, very happy—that I’ve been part of your experience here at high school,” says Read. “Your futures mean a lot to yourselves, to your people and to the world. What do you say we get this over with?”

“Let’s go graduate,” adds Scott Polson, the school’s counselor, as the group heads inside.

Today’s nine graduates line up and anxiously await their cue. Blaze Condon shuffles her feet and fiddles with her bracelets.

“Obviously this is all new, and I’ve never done this before,” says Condon. “So, I’m a little nervous.”

“I’m glad to be done with high school, like no lie,” says Harold Friday, from further back in the line.

“Yeah, me too,” echoes Ransom Ferris.

“It’s over,” adds Eugene Elk.

As the group argues about how to position the tassels on their graduation caps, a drumbeat signals the start of their march.  

The graduates chose Arlen Shoyo, the school’s Shoshone language teacher to be the keynote speaker today. Once they’ve taken their seats, he takes the stage to deliver his message.

Don't give up.

“We as Indian people always persevere, as you all know,” Shoyo says. "We do that. One way or another, we do that. Not only the students here, but the people in the crowd this morning.”

Throughout his speech, Shoyo repeats a simple phrase to the students again and again.

“Don’t give up.”

Minutes later, Principal Shad Hamilton begins awarding diplomas. He calls Ransom Ferris’ name. His parents—Kevin and Sherri Ferris—watch with joy from the stands as their son grips his diploma. He’s planning on going to Northwest College in Powell next year.

“I’d say he worked mighty hard,” says Kevin. “Got enough credits to graduate and fulfilled it—and here we are today, so pretty happy.”

“I’m happy that he graduated but I’m sad because now he’s grown up,” adds Sherri.

When all the names are read, the drum group belts out a final song and the crowded gymnasium spills into the lobby for cake and more pictures.

As he shakes hands, the newly-graduated Harold Friday is showing a bit more enthusiasm than he was before the ceremony.

“I feel very excited because I achieved my goal and what I really wanted to do—and I finally get to graduate,” Friday says. “It’s probably the best feeling I ever had.”

Harold plans to attend a Job Corps culinary arts program in a neighboring state.

Blaze Condon will leave town tomorrow as she heads to college in North Dakota. She’s only gone to Fort Washakie High School for this year, but she spent most of her childhood at the connected elementary school.

“I’m still having trouble believing this is real,” says Condon. “I realized yesterday I’m going to miss this place a lot. It’s kind of like a home to me.”

Condon dropped out of high school once before, and credits the teachers here for helping her get to this point.

“Those guys, since coming here to this high school have never given up on me no matter how far behind I’ve gotten, always told me that you can do this—and I finally did.”

Blaze’s dad, Michael Condon, is here from South Dakota to share this important day. 

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be a parent and actually see your little ones graduate,” he says. “I don’t know what words can explain this feeling. So, yeah, I’m pretty good right now.”

Just down the road at Eugene Elk’s house, pulled pork sizzles in the slow cooker as family and friends celebrate.

“Pork sandwiches, beans, the works,” says Elk, loading up his plate. “It’s pretty good, man.”

The meal comes courtesy of Eugene’s mom, Melissa Elk, who says she has mixed feelings today.

“I keep thinking about next week—and I won’t be saying, ‘Eugene, get up, it’s time for school,’” the elder Elk says. “So a part of me is sad that I’m having to let go.”

Eugene is feeling less ambivalent.

“Pure joy,” he says, with a laugh. “Pure happiness. I’m going to go to the casino. It’s calling my name.”

Eugene is the first one in his family to graduate high school. He plans to study welding at a technical school in Colorado. When I ask him if he has any words of wisdom on his big day, Eugene echoes those of his graduation speaker, Arlen Shoyo.

“Never give up,” Elk says. “That’s the only thing I have to say.”

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.