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Commencement address by Louise Erdrich '76
I am tremendously moved, and happy, to stand before you today. Thank you all for welcoming me. Thank you President Wright and Susan DeBovoise Wright. Congratulations on your new President, Jim Yong Kim. I offer my admiration to the other recipients of honorary degrees, and acknowledge my ancestors and relatives, Nindinawemagonidok, including the first Native people educated on this very ground, Abenaki homeland, Dartmouth College.
Class of 2009, I’m delighted to be your speaker. Although I’ve written many long books, I am also a former Kentucky Fried Chicken waitress and understand brevity. This speech will last 11½ minutes, and there will be chickens in it.
I am a member of the class of 1976, the first class that included women, the first class in the newly recommitted Native American Program, and to answer a question I was recently asked – yes, in those days we did play an ancient form of (beer) pong.
I am a storyteller, so that’s where I’m going to begin.
Story One: The Courage of Chickens
The morning I was to leave for Dartmouth, from my home in Wahpeton, North Dakota, which I’d hardly ever left, I was so afraid that I almost did not go. I applied in the first place because my mother, a strong Turtle Mountain Chippewa woman, had seen a picture of the winter carnival ice sculpture in a National Geographic Magazine, and noted Dartmouth’s historic commitment to educating American Indians. We didn’t think about co-education, or what it would mean to be so far from home. I’d never been on a plane. I negotiated the change at Boston’s Logan Airport. The smaller plane I boarded also at that time carried mail, freight, whatever was needed in the Upper Valley, including livestock. On that day, they were carrying crates of baby chicks in the back hold of the cabin. Every time the plane went over a bump of warm air, the chicks started peeping.
They were terrified. But in their fear they did not cower or go silent. They stood up together and made noise. They didn’t even know the plane was going to land. The lesson was this: when you’re afraid, get your friends around you and don’t panic. Picture exactly what you fear. Most of the time, once you analyze your fear it can be managed. Unless you are in a life or death situation, your main fear is probably failure, or possible humiliation.
Story Two: The Uses of Humiliation, or The Law of the Onion
By the end of the year and on into the next, I was probably cracking the very eggs those chickens laid onto the Thayer Dining Hall breakfast grill. My boss was a former army cook converted to vegetarianism. A man ahead of his time. He also made the flunky, me, do the prep work. So one morning before class, I peeled and chopped a sixty pound bag of onions. Then I went straight to Introduction to the Problems of Democracy.
My problem that day was that I smelled like an onion. You know how it is when you smell like an onion. You can’t smell how badly you smell. I walked into class and everybody moved away from me. I was frozen with embarrassment. Now, I was sure anyway, coming from North Dakota, that everyone was smarter than me. And at the moment, not only were they smarter, but I was the only one who smelled like an onion.
Lesson? If you smell like an onion, hold your nose and take notes. I passed the class, but did not become a philosophy major. Instead, I became a writer. Even if people were smarter, I had the advantage of knowing onions. I had stories. Most important of all, I had humiliation. If there’s one this we all have in common, it is absurd humiliation, which can actually become the basis of wisdom.
The experience caused me to invent The Law of the Onion. It goes something like this: you have to risk humiliation if you want to move forward. But the Law of the Onion also states: don’t take things personally. If other people’s opinions are not personal to you, good or bad, you have a kind of freedom to be who you are. You have the freedom to do the work that is most meaningful to you.
My third story is not simple. This is because I decided that for this occasion I would finally solve a problem that bothered me the entire time I was at Dartmouth.
This is the problem of Orozco’s Skeletons.
My last and favorite job was at the old reference library microfilm desk under the mural painted by Jose Clemente Orozco beginning in 1932. Of course, this is one of Dartmouth’s greatest treasures, and perhaps the most powerful and exquisite mural in North America.
The doorway to my little office was close to the part of the mural called Gods of the Western World. And now, as Gods have entered the speech, I must say this:
Whatever does not turn away from you in hard times and in your deepest hours -- that is God. But remember, however deep your faith, however hard you pray, there is another person in the world with a faith as deep as yours, praying just as hard, only their God has a different name. The Gods have this in common: they are mysterious, ungraspable, and unknowable. The Gods raise questions: Who are we? How did we get here? Can we make a car that runs on carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen, like a tree? You are put here to answer unanswerable questions.
To get to my office I passed beneath section of the mural where a huge skeleton, assisted by other skeletons in academic gowns, violently gives birth to baby skeletons in academic hats. Not only that, but the skeleton babies are in bell jars. Now again, this mural is a work of the highest genius, however, to an undergraduate that part of the mural is also seriously creepy. And you do know what I’m talking about. I noticed that not very many people liked to study by that part of the mural. As I passed beneath it every day, I tried to get a handle on what it meant.
Well, obvious, at least at first! It meant that we were all dry skeletons absorbing dry knowledge giving birth to little vacuum packed boney skeletons.
So is this us? Sitting here today? I don’t think so. Look around you, feel the wind, the sun, the energy from the great-branched trees. Something very different is going on. We are so vital, so alive. And we are all here one final time, in order to celebrate the fact that you have acquired knowledge.
With this knowledge you have the makings of mino bimaadiziwin, in Ojibwe, the good life. Knowledge with Courage. Knowledge with Fortitude. Knowledge with Generosity and Kindness.
This is mino bimaadiziwin.
This concept of mino bimaadiziwin resonates with the message of Orozco’s ferocious skeletons. It says knowledge without compassion is dead knowledge. Beware of knowledge without love.
Now I don’t mean romantic love – Harlequin Romance Love – I don’t write those books. It is the kind of love you have: devotion to the world.
A world that needs you right now, worse than it ever has.
Have you ever been in a relationship where you took someone for granted, where you treated that person badly but he or she seemed resilient? A relationship in which you had the feeling that things were going to be all right in spite of how you’d acted and then, boom, all of a sudden you got dumped?
That is the relationship we are in right now with the earth. But if the earth dumps us, we actually do die of broken hearts. We get extirpated, ended, exterminated, finished. The numbers are crunched; the science is done. Our planet, which at best estimate might support 2 billion modest lifestyles, will see our population jump to 7 billion in just two years. We’re in a nosedive unless we can change as a species. We’re like chicks in a crate, peeping, and we don’t know if we’re going to land. We don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no pilot. There’s just this plane.
So while the plane is diving one chick in the crate turns to the other and says, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” And the other chick says, “That’s not the question. The question is why did the chicken cross the road?” And the third chick says, “shut up, stop arguing and help me steer!”
No matter what we believe, no matter what our political convictions, ethnicities or religious faiths, we have to get together and steer this thing. We must stop fighting endless wars and act to heal and love this world. Nindiniwemaganidok. You are my relatives. We are all related through our common humanity and through this college and all who endeavor, here, as one, to make this the best world possible.
So take love away with your diploma. Knowledge with love.
It is love of peace that makes you a warrior, love of process that binds you to your work, love of family that steadies you in all that you do. Often, the only answer to the questions that will be posed all through your life is a mute and fierce love, an irrational love, a love that simply answers I am here.
So don’t hold back, don’t punt. DO WHAT YOU LOVE BEST. Make your life doing what you love best, but do is as if it meant you were out to save the world. Because you are. And if you are criticized and not every one agrees with you, say to yourself, I must be doing something original, and if your efforts are rejected, say I will persevere, and if your work fails at first, fail again, fail better, until you triumph.
The words of Samuel Beckett Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
My words: until you triumph. And when you do, help young people get where you are.
While I was at Dartmouth, my parent wrote letters to me every week. I saved them all. I reread them before I came here and thought I’d leave you with two lines of their wisdom. My father, a North Dakota schoolteacher, often closed his letters with the Latin phrase – Magnum vectigal est parsimonia. Thrift is a source of revenue. Those with banking careers ahead, take note. My mother always closed her letters with I love you.
And now in the remaining 30 second, I’d like to ask you all to rise. This is not about me. Please turn around, Class of 2009, and look at everyone gathered around you. Look at this view you’ve seen so often, with your loved ones honoring you under the generous trees. I’d like to ask you to recognize all of the people who got you through Dartmouth. Cheer for your professors and Dartmouth faculty. Your President and future President. Your unsung administration. The roommates you chose and the ones you didn’t choose, but got anyway, the ones who taught you frustration and tolerance. Cheer the people in the town of Hanover. Cheer the towering trees and sweet old buildings. The people who set the chairs up and are waiting to clean this area. Cheer the Baker librarians! Cheer the cooks! Those who serve the food and cut the lawns! And of course, applaud your dear friends. Cheer for your fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. Applaud your family and most of all, last of all, cheer for your grandparents and your parents, who made it all possible.
This is your day. Think of everyone who means something to you. Appreciate them all. Class of 2009, cheer hard. You’ve graduated from Dartmouth. Now you have the freedom and skills to love this world like crazy. We need her. Do your best for this beautiful old world.
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