Comments of Shaunna Oteka McCovey

I am so deeply honored to be here with you today. I thank you, I thank the Abenaki people who once occupied these lands, and I thank the descendants of those Abenaki who live here in the gorgeous Green Mountain State. I stand before you with humility.

Aiyukii, I am Yurok and Karuk and a member of the Yurok Tribe of Northern California. I grew up on the Klamath River. My people are made of salmon.

Today I want to talk to you about Responsibility. You're thinking, “No, wait, were not ready!” But your parents are nodding their heads “yes!” I can see it in their eyes that they want me to lecture you about Responsibility. I’m not going to do that. Well, not entirely. I’m going to tell you what Responsibility means to me as a Yurok/Karuk person, who was brought up fishing on our River.

In simple terms it means this: We take care of what takes care of us. This is our Golden Rule! The Golden Rule for the Yurok and Karuk people. We take care of what takes care of us.

And what takes care of us? What provides for us? What sustains us—our lives, our very beings? This planet. This wondrous, floating, big blue water planet. And, as far as we know, we are the only lifeforms living on a habitable planet three spaces from a sun.

So, shouldn’t we be more respectful? Shouldn’t we be more Responsible? As individuals, as communities, as countries and nations—since we are, after all, water dependent human beings. Shouldn’t we all be more responsible for taking care of what takes care of us?

Back to what it means as a Yurok/Karuk person. As a Native person we are born into a world of great responsibility. We are asked to move through this life as a representation and reflection of the beauty of our people. We are responsible for the health, welfare and well-being of our family, our people, our community, our tribal government. We are responsible for being a good citizen for being someone who contributes to our tribe, our community and to society as a whole. If we are dance people and come from dance families, or if we just attend our tribal dances, for example, it is our responsibility to be part of remaking the world, of putting it back into balance through song, dance and prayer. Yes, we actually do that. And we don’t just dance for ourselves. We dance for every living being—plants, animals, micro-organisms, etc—every living thing that occupies space on this earth. We dance for you.

But taking Responsibility can be tricky, right? My father, who was the most intelligent man I’ve ever known, once joked about how Responsibility had discovered his hiding place! It think about that all of the time. I imagine him crouching about, trying to dodge his responsibilities, only they sneak up on him from behind and scream, “Found you!” And he accepts his fate, just like we all must.

This is a poem I wrote a number of years ago.

Lifeblood

Is it too much to ask
to see the river
as heart and lungs
an artery of hydrogen
and oxygen that nourishes
the body of the earth?

Too much to ask them
to let go of ego and
embrace a worldview
in which the center
of the universe can be
seen, touched. 

In their houses they decide
river fate, our fate,
without ever feeling
the lifeblood of the river,
without fully knowing
an Indian’s life:

prayers to fix the world,
a natural affinity for
salmon and the sacred,
the intrepid will to
never grow tired,
never give up.

If we are dependent on something that in essence sustains us, shouldn’t we be responsible for taking care of it? Shouldn’t we take care of what takes care of us?

Now, I’m not trying to weigh you down with Responsibility, and I really don’t want to use old cliché’s like, “The weight of the world is on your shoulders,” but I’m going to tell you the truth—it is. But here’s the thing: you are strong enough, and smart enough to bear your part in the Responsibility because it is not yours alone. It is all of ours. It is collective Responsibility.

We live in very interesting times. We live in a time of divisiveness, of environmental degradation in the name of greed and partisanship, a time where people with racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, bigoted inclinations have been given a green light to act in abhorrent ways, a time where it feels like we are going back in time. 

Which makes is all the more important for you to accept your shared Responsibility and acknowledge our shared humanity—and act accordingly. Whatever, however that may be. I trust that you’ll figure it out because you are soon to be Marlboro alumni.

You’ve done an amazing thing, and I congratulate you all! Don’t ever take your education for granted. There are so many young people who don’t have the means or the opportunity to do what you have done—I know a lot them personally. You should be proud of your accomplishments—but also, be thankful.

I leave you with six final words that I promise will make all the difference as you continue to ride Big Blue around the sun and on to the next great adventure – Be Good. Be Kind. Be Responsible.