LuAnn Leonard's NAU Commencement Address


Nukwang’tap ‘ki (Good Evening)!  It’s a good day!  It’s a good day to be a Lumberjack, isn’t it?

President Cheng, Regents Manson & Gorsche, distinguished platform party, tribal leaders, NAU faculty/staff, proud family members, friends, and graduates.  My heart is filled with pride to see you here today.

I stand before you overwhelmed as it is a great privilege to accept this honorary Degree from my Northern Arizona University.  During my eight-year tenure as a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, I have had the honor of presiding over just about every NAU commencement ceremony and shaking the hands of literally thousands of NAU graduates.  Sitting on this platform I have listened to the words of inspiration by many distinguished commencement speakers and wondered what I might say if I ever had the chance.



Well, today is my chance and I am filled with gratitude to have this opportunity to share a few words of wisdom, encouragement, and advice. Thirty-four years ago I was sitting exactly where you are.  The year was 1983 and I was a proud 21-year-old Lumberjack.  Sitting in the Skydome on commencement day, my classmates and I were ready to take on the world, filled with the possibilities of what lay ahead. My education at NAU taught me many things, but so too did my education after graduation on Hopi where I lived with my grandmother -pictured above- (PICTURE OF GRINDING GIRLS) and where I learned the ways of my people like Sumi’nangwa–Coming together out of a compelling desire and commitment to contribute or return something of value to the community. And like many of you here today, I too was “first” in being the first member of my family to attend and graduate from college with a baccalaureate degree.  But even if you are part of a legacy of college graduates or NAU Lumberjacks, each of you has a contribution to make to your community – however you define this – and a destiny to fulfill.

Let me tell you a story of my people.  I am Alwungwa -Deer Clan- from the Hopi village of Sichomovi on the Hopi Reservation about 90 miles northeast of here.  A reservation where traditions and practices continue today as they did centuries ago.   A place in the high arid desert where the average rainfall is 6 inches a year.  A place where farming is as much an act of faith as it is of hard work. But through hard work and prayers and the support of the women, our men grow white, blue, yellow and red corn.

Although Hopi history begins long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus or signing of the U.S. Constitution, our history is very much a part of U.S. history.  Let me take you back 130 years ago to 1887.  At the time, the Hopi people were living a life guided by traditions and practices handed down from their ancestors.  Life was hard but life was good.  But in 1887, the U.S. government arrived on the Hopi reservation and like it had at so many other Indian Reservations across the continent; government officials began to work to “civilize” the natives.  They did this by forcing Hopi parents to send their children to boarding school and by forcing Hopi farmers to “farm as the government instructed them to” not admitting that farming in Iowa was very different than farming in Northern Arizona. The federal government’s goal was to weaken the family and clan relations, thus weakening the social structure.  In other words . . . disrupting our way of life so our culture and traditions – the very essence of what makes us Hopi – would fade away. 


Hopi Indians at Alcatraz

But contrary to what people think, as many view Hopi’s as “the peaceful people,” a group of 19 men resisted. These resisters (PICTURE OF MEN AT ALCATRAZ) were farmers and family men. But in protecting all that they valued and held sacred, these Hopi men were charged with the crime of not “farming as the government instructed them to and for opposing forced education in government boarding schools.”  For their crime, these men were to be “held in confinement, at hard labor, until . . . they shall show . . . they fully realize the error of their evil ways . . . “.   Their place of confinement?  Alcatraz Island – the infamous, maximum-security federal penitentiary known as “the Rock”! Luckily all 19 men survived and were able to return home to Hopi.

I cannot imagine the hardships these men endured being separated from their families and confined to Alcatraz isolated from all that was familiar to them. Their story has inspired me throughout my life because it speaks to the core Hopi values of perseverance, faith, hope, and community.  Whether or not you are Hopi, I encourage each of you to think about these values and how they might help you in terms of how interconnected your life is and how your actions can have an influence on the lives of others.

In 1887 when the Hopi resisters were held on Alcatraz Island, federal officials thought the corn we grew was like this. 

Small Corn

Fast-forward 130 years to today.  Today our corn grows like this. 

Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 9.55.01 AM.png

For centuries this corn has evolved through prayer and the knowledge of Hopi farmers to grow in areas with little moisture.  Those 19 men like our Hopi men of today knew what they were doing and now in this age of climate change, people around the world are wondering how can this be done.

Hopi men tend to their field as they would tend to their children.  By nurturing the plants through song, prayer, and constant attention the plants flourish in the harshest conditions. Let’s take a closer look at the little corn.  Most farmers would use this for feed corn or simply throw it away as waste.  To a Hopi, this corn is precious and just as important.  When you look closely it produced little but viable corn that would be ground and made into cornmeal to nourish the people and more importantly to be used in religious ceremonies.   Each corn big or small has an important purpose.   

The lesson learned is:  Wouldn’t it be something if we treated everyone in this manner and valued them as equal, important and precious?  Imagine what kind of world would we be?  President Cheng, I give you this corn as a reminder of the lesson that I just shared.

Graduating in this class today are candidates for the Baccalaureate, Masters, and Doctoral degrees from the Business and Health fields.  During your time at NAU, you have learned to look at all sides of an issue, to utilize your research skills to confirm your findings, to value the importance of communication and to work as a team.  I’ve always thought that the answer to many things, let’s say the cure for cancer will someday come from a team of people from places around the world like Africa, Iceland, New York City, Asia, Mexico and Northern Arizona! Every team member is valuable and has something of significance to share.  As you go forward be mindful of valuing everyone in your team as an equal as you never know who has the key to the cure or the answer to the problem.


Now for the “Practical” part of the speech. 

Graduates, as you prepare to go forth to make your mark on this world, I think it’s important to take a few moments to remind you that your work is far from done and that there are many others who are following in your footsteps.  The following are some things that I think are important:

Get involved:

Get involved, volunteer or run for office to serve on school boards, health boards, community Action committees, State Commissions, etc.  Use your NAU education, experience and expertise to help make decisions that will improve the quality of life for your community.  Work to encourage legislators to start thinking of expenditures for education as an investment in our future and not just an expense.  Find ways to give back to your community.  Your education is a gift not just to yourself, but also to others who might benefit from your knowledge and experience.  Make the best use of it.


Get educated on the issues challenging your community and vote for those who understand and who can make a positive difference.  As we all now know firsthand . . . It’s true, every vote counts.  Voting is a privilege, one that should not be taken lightly.  My personal philosophy is . . .  If you don’t take time to vote then don’t complain!  By voting, you will have done your civic duty to make your voice be heard and will help to shape the future of your community.

Learning is lifelong:

NAU has worked hard to be a top performing academic institution that strives to give students skills to be successful throughout their lives and to support new ideas that will drive our future economy and quality of life.  Make it a point to learn something new every day.

Be a good role model:

Like it or not, by virtue of your accomplishment today you are a role model to the youth.  Model healthy behaviors in all aspects of your life- personal and public as the children are watching.  I ran across a book by Gregory Lang that gave advice to graduates.  I pulled some things to share:

·        Don’t be photographed doing something you wouldn’t want to explain later.
·        Think twice, even three times before getting a tattoo (Maybe we should have told you that during Freshman year?)
·        Hold yourself to the same or higher standards to which you hold others.
·        Don’t post a status, update or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read.
·        Be a good role model.

Employers are watching:

By graduating you have just increased your employability two-fold.  I recently went to an event where a panel of Northern Arizona employers shared the traits that they look for when interviewing and hiring new staff.  These traits included:

·        Honesty
·        Effective Communicator
·        Professional
·        A willingness to learn new things
·        Self-motivated
·        Driven
·        Self-Sustaining

And across the Board the number one trait was good old fashioned:

·        Punctual-Being on time.

So family members, I think watches would be a great graduation gift.

Remember you are the lucky ones.

As you move forward in your life, keep in mind those who started college with you but didn’t make it this far.  Think about what you can do to make a difference for those that follow so that they too can experience success.  In his award-winning song, Tim McGraw would say “I know you have mountains to climb but always stay humble and kind.” Take a moment to thank your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, children and all of those who supported you to get you through your educational journey. 

Finally . . . There are still “firsts” left in your world.

We have seen the first man walk on the moon, first African American President, and so on but . . . there are “firsts” left for you.  I recently read that a 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner came from the little ole town of Winslow, Arizona.  Now that’s a first!  The movie “Hidden Figures” is also a good example of “firsts” in regards to gender, race and occupation.  So know that there are still firsts left in your world

What will your “first” be?


In closing,

Graduates I leave you with this . . .   I speak to you as a mother as my two beautiful children Nicole and Joaquin are here with me today.  It’s most fitting that your graduation falls around Mother’s day because you’ve given her one of the greatest gifts she could ever ask for.

When you were born.

When you were precious little babies . . . Your family, especially your mother brought you into this world with great hopes and prayers.  Prayers for a good life.  Prayers for a long life filled with happiness and health.  Prayers for a life in which you would reach your full potential through education and experience.  By graduating today you can take great pride in knowing that you have helped to make your mother’s prayers come true.


Congratulations and Askwali (Thank You)!