SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Michelle Obama plans to address 105 Native American high school graduates Thursday during a commencement speech that comes as she tries to spotlight the plight of tribal youth in the final months of her husband’s presidency.
The first lady’s commencement address at Santa Fe Indian School is being delivered as part of an Obama initiative that aims to remove “barriers to success” for Native American youth — a group the White House says make up the nation’s “most vulnerable population.”
High poverty rates, aging school buildings, and health and housing disparities within tribal communities have been blamed for Native American graduation rates that fall just below 70 percent and are the lowest of any group in the country.
Against this backdrop, the Santa Fe Indian School — owned and operated by the 19 pueblo tribes of New Mexico — has emerged as a bright spot, with a graduation rate on par with the national average of 82 percent and nearly every member of the 2016 class college-bound in the fall.
The graduating seniors — who played a part in inviting Obama to their school — said they expected uplifting, empowering remarks from the first lady on their big day. “I hope that she gives us encouraging words because — I don’t know — sometimes Native Americans are skeptical in believing in ourselves as a people, and I think words of encouragement would be really helpful,” said Chyanne Quintana, who plans to attend the University of New Mexico in the fall.
She said she eventually would like to become a doctor and work in rural communities. Coming a month after a speech to Jackson State University graduates in Mississippi, the first lady’s Santa Fe Indian School appearance will be the second of three commencement addresses she gives this spring. Next week, she is scheduled to speak to graduates at the City College of New York campus in Harlem.
The commencement address comes nearly a year after she spoke to nearly 1,000 Native American youth for a first-of-its-kind summit held by the White House under its Generation Indigenous initiative — which emerged from a 2014 visit by the Obamas to North Dakota where they visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
In Santa Fe, Obama plans to share her personal story and speak about the values she learned from her family, said Lauren Vrazilek, a spokeswoman for the first lady. “She will talk about the power of those values; honor the students’ many accomplishments; and urge them to continue achieving, embracing their culture, and staying true to who they are,” Vrazilek said in a statement.