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HomeIndigenous NewsLily Gladstone inspires with unlikely route to success

Lily Gladstone inspires with unlikely route to success

Renata Birkenbuel and Kolby KickingWoman 

Lily Gladstone has always followed her heart and soul.

Stepping to the podium wearing a stand-up headdress, Gladstone encouraged the class of 2024 to do the same.

Gladstone noted, however, it was not the same headdress given to her during Lily Gladstone Day in Browning, Montana in March. The headdress belonged to fellow Women’s Stand-Up Headdress Society member, Theda New Breast.

Related: Lily Gladstone goes home

“TSA is not kind to ceremonial items, to sacred items, and we have to be very protective of these so mine is protected safe at home, close to my parents,” Gladstone quipped.

The Siksikaitsitapii and Nimíipuu actress is an alumna of the university and was recruited by Ivy League schools, yet Montana had what she was looking for.

Ultimately, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and acting and directing and a minor in Native American studies in 2008.

While acting peers headed off to Los Angeles and New York in search of a big break in show business, Lily instead chose community and home.

“There was everything that I wanted here, but mostly my compass was pointing me home,” Gladstone said. “I don’t know where all of your compasses point you but trust that whatever brought you here, that same voice is going to guide you from here on out.”

To her utter amazement, Gladstone received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts and joked, “I don’t know if I’m gonna get used to this title of doctor anytime soon.”

Marking such a momentous accomplishment for so many, the Rawhide Singers from Browning, Montana sang a victory song for all those graduating.

Just after receiving her honorary doctorate, Mike Bruised Head, Blood Tribe, sang an additional honor song for Gladstone after gifting a blanket.

Lily Gladstone, center, is wrapped in a blanket prior to giving commencement speech at the University of Montana (Photo courtesy University of Montana)

“I think she’s touched everybody in North America,” Bruised Head said. “I’m really proud of her.”

The award-winning actress has taken an unconventional path in building her career.

“I grew my career slowly in a place that I wanted to also build community,” Gladstone said. “I wanted to bring more storytelling opportunities to Montana and particularly to all of our Native nations and just kept plugging away.”

As fate would have it, she landed an agent in Montana to kick off her independent film and stage career.

Gladstone hit on heartfelt themes of giving back to one’s community, how life is cyclical and naturally involves fear, while openly joining graduates in the latter.

“So maybe to help assuage some of this fear in all of you, this fear of the unknown. In solidarity I decided to come up here this morning and also embrace the unknown with you, I didn’t write a speech,” Gladstone said to laughter and applause.

A number of Indigenous students graduating sincerely took in Gladstone’s speech.

Justin Ras, Northern Cheyenne, told ICT that Gladstone is “the total package” and that he was glad she was able to make it to the ceremony.

“I loved it, I cried,” Ras said. “It was beautiful, really.”

Justin Ras, left, holds up the Northern Cheyenne tribal flag with family after graduation ceremony on May 11, 2024 (Kolby KickingWoman, ICT)

Shelbi St. Goddard, Blackfeet, earned her degree in environmental science and sustainability with a minor in resource conservation. Her education career has had its share of ups and downs, but she looks forward to giving back to her tribe.

Gladstone’s words of following your heart and giving back to your community hit home.

“I kind of feel that tension or just feeling that you’re doing something different than a lot of your other classmates, being Indigenous here and a lot of my classmates are gonna go to agencies and stuff,” said St. Goddard. “But I’m gonna go back home to my tribe and give back to my tribe.”

Eric Plumage, Assiniboine and Nakoda from Ft. Belknap, Montana, earned his master’s degree in business administration. Tall and commanding, he stood out in the crowd while family surrounded him like honey bees outside Adams Center following commencement. He seemed almost as big a star as Gladstone.

Plumage said Gladstone’s unusual trajectory to success in Hollywood struck a chord with him.

“It was really cool,” he said. “I enjoy her movies. You know, it’s pretty cool that she’s representing Native Americans in movies, in film.”

Eric Plumage, Assiniboine and Nakoda, who earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Montana on Saturday, said he liked that commencement speaker Lily Gladstone stayed in Montana to begin her acting career. (Renata Birkenbuel, ICT)

Gladstone’s repeated advice throughout her speech? For all graduates to follow their instincts, follow their hearts as they move onto the real world.

“I thought it was really smart,” added Plumage. “You know, a lot of actors that go to LA … it’s true, they can’t make it. But she was able to stay in Montana and use Montana connections to get into the industry. That was smart.”

Doreen Bell, Plumage’s mother who’s also Assiniboine and Nakoda, overflowed with pride as admirers took turns photographing her son outside as balloons flew in the background.

Bell appeared to be among many in the huge post-graduation crowd who lingered outside in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Gladstone, who brought down the house a few times with her heartfelt off-script speech.

“Oh, I loved it. I loved it,” Bell said. “I really liked what she had to say about studying hard and meeting your goals, but at the same time, you know, enjoy life.”

As for her son, Eric Plumage plans to work as an accountant and take care of his family while staying in Missoula.

Kamilla Aurora Kalanikoa Tanaka, Native Hawaiian from Hana, dazzled in her native tea leaves, family-created money leis and Montana-inspired flower leis, lei-in-lieu of a cap and of course, her commencement gown.

Kamilla Aurora Kalanikoa Tanaka, Native Hawaiian, management information systems graduate at the University of Montana on Saturday, said she appreciates that commencement speaker Lily Gladstone urged graduates to protect their heart as your soul, which many Indigenous cultures value. (Renata Birkenbuel, ICT)

Tanaka earned her bachelor’s degree in management information systems from the business school. She, too, garnered familiar insight from Gladstone’s speech.

“I love how she talks about inspiration and how your heart is your soul and keeping it protected,” Tanaka said. “It’s kind of meaningful because I feel that’s kind of the value in a lot of the Native cultures, you know – just protecting yourself and your soul.”

Tanaka plans to take a much-deserved break before jumping into the world of work. She credits other friends and Montana graduates from Hawaii in getting her to UM.

The symbolic tea leaves wrapped around Tanaka came directly from her home state.

“So these are grown in the forest of Hawaii, and it’s big for special occasions, for celebrations and stuff like that,” Tanaka added.

Beautiful rose and carnation leis symbolize her Montana connections, since they are not native to Hawaii.

Although he did not have a graduate participating in the ceremony, Reggie D. George, Yakama Nation and radio programmer, showed up in the hopes of meeting Gladstone. He said her speech was illuminating.

“I really liked it,” said George, waiting in the lobby afterward while keeping an eye out for Gladstone to emerge from the exiting crowd. “It was eye- opening about how she went through this ceremony 16 years ago. That’s quite a trip for her to get to this peak.”

Gladstone hailed joy as an attainable goal and the prayer of new beginnings.

“So that’s my prayer for all of you out there today as well through the sleepiness, through the pride, through the nervousness of a new beginning. Find the joy, be so grateful for what you’ve done for what’s brought you here.”

Encouraging the class of 2024 to step bravely into their post-college world, Gladstone said emboldened them to forge their own path.

“Lead with your heart, lead with joy, lead with compassion,” said Gladstone. “You may be very skilled in whatever field it is that you’ve just picked up. You can tuck that in your belt but that’s, that’s a supporting framework that should always prop up your kindness, your care for the world around you.”

Gladstone ended on a simple note for the nervous grads anxious to walk the stage, then celebrate with friends and family.

“Thank you all,” she said. “Be well be safe, safe travels to everybody wherever you return to from here and yeah – have some fun.”

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