The largest graduation ceremony ever was held at the University of Alaska Southeast on Sunday, as 529 degrees and other certificates were awarded at the Auke Lake campus.
More were awarded at the Ketchikan and Sitka campuses, for a total of 620 degrees.
The increasingly successful school’s graduation audience heard an address from Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho and honored the Native heritage of the university and the community.
Botelho took the crowd back a hundred years, to 1912, after Juneau had really become a city after having been founded as a possibly temporary mining town.
“By 1912 it had taken on an aura of permanence,” he said.
The city, then as now, grappled with similar issues, ranging from power to housing. The economy was dominated by mining, however, with government playing only a small role.
Several of the existing historic downtown buildings had already been built, with the territorial governor soon to move into a new Governor’s House, and the territory’s first “fireproof” building was under construction downtown at the corner of Seward and Front Streets.
At the time though, Fairbanks was twice Juneau’s size, with even Nome having more residents.
Then, as now, there were concerns about inadequate housing, and cries for more land to be made available.
“The city council announced plans to fill the tide flats for additional housing,” Botelho said.
The mayor, who leaves office this fall after having served the maximum number of terms possible, said national issues also affected Alaska, and even though statehood was half a century away, there was a desire for more local control.
Presidential candidate William Taft campaigned against Alaska land withdrawals, especially the Tongass forest, that President Theodore Roosevelt supported.
Alaska was allowed to create a territorial Legislature, though the president appointed the governor until statehood.
Out-of-Alaska business interests, including what was known as the “Alaska Syndicate” of the Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan mining interests controlled much of Alaska’s economy.
At the same time, fishermen were organizing and striking against the cannery interests, which preferred to use fish traps to cut the fishermen out of the process.
Because of the influence the Outside corporations had in Congress, the territorial Legislature was kept weak and unable to regulate key sectors of the state such as management of land, fish and game, or to build and maintain roads.
Politically, there was much to be done as well, he said, with half the state’s population, Alaska Natives, not considered citizens and eligible to vote.
Botelho told the new graduates that Native leaders of the time were early advocates for rights, and for education.
Peter Simpson of Sitka, the first president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, active in voting and statehood issues, linked the issues to education. He’d been educated at Sheldon Jackson High School, later Sheldon Jackson College, in Sitka.
“We want citizenship because we have had a taste of education and want more,” Botelho quoted Simpson as saying.
Native themes ran though the graduation ceremony, with an honorary doctorate for Native leader John Borbridge, student speaker Crystal Rogers alternating the English portions of her address with the Tlingit she’s learned at UAS, and retired Regent Bill Martin providing the final charge to the graduates.
Borbridge said even though he’d been a teacher at Sheldon Jackson High School and Juneau High School he kept on learning, and urged the graduates to do the same.
“I never cease to be fascinated by the perspectives of others,” he said.
Borbridge, as the first President of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, helped urge adoption of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. He went on to serve as first chairman and president of Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska.
He said, jokingly, that he kept learning so long that it took him 50 years to get his doctorate, as he was named an honorary Doctor of Laws at Sunday’s ceremony.
Rogers told the crowd the diverse students were not so different from each other.
“The word ‘Tlingit’ means human being” she said. “We are all Tlingit, that is to say we are all human beings.”
Juneau’s Bob Martin, originally from Kake, gave final words of advice to the new graduates.
Learn from your mistakes, Martin said, but also learn from others’ mistakes so you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself.
“Let the other guy learn from the school of hard knocks,” he said, but learn and pass on those lessons.
Martin said he had already “graduated from the school of hard knocks, with honors.”
The Tlingit were a trading people in a culture that didn’t have a written language, he said, and did all business verbally.
“One’s word became a contract,” he said.
If you broke your word your reputation would be shattered and you would lose your ability to do business.
That’s something new graduates still need to know, he said.
“Your reputation for honesty and fair dealing will follow you,” Martin said.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org