BEMIDJI, Minn. — In the wake of family tragedy Serena Graves was motivated to seek a deeper understanding of her Ojibwe culture, and now the Ojibwemowin language has become the thread weaving together her academic career.
Through this journey, Graves said she went from being a relatively average student in high school to finishing at the top of her class in college, with plans to continue in pursuit of a doctoral degree.
The motivated Indigenous studies and Ojibwe language student graduated Friday, May 7, along with the rest of the Bemidji State University Class of 2021.
Born and raised in Red Lake Nation, Graves attended Red Lake High School and spent a few years searching for her calling after graduating, not quite sure what she wanted to do next.
“My dad and my 15-year-old nephew both passed away of cancer within a five-year span right before I started college. It put me in a position where I've never been more heartbroken and full of grief and sorrow in my life,” she said. “It helped me create this mindset of, ‘I'm going to go and be the best student I can possibly be.’”
Through her pain, she found solace in learning more about her own heritage and felt the desire to connect more deeply with her cultural roots by studying the Ojibwe language.
She started her academic journey at a community college in Minneapolis before transferring to Bemidji State to be closer to Red Lake. Originally, Graves saw her time at BSU as an obstacle she had to overcome on the road to graduate studies. But soon, she found a second family there.
“I didn't (expect) to love Bemidji State as much as I ended up loving it,” she said. “I basically have two family members at BSU, Dr. Nikki Michael and Dr. (Anton) Treuer.”
Graves credits these professors with teaching her how to think critically, guiding her academically, and serving as her mentors.
“Most importantly they taught me how to embody the spirit of a standout Ojibwe academic,” Graves explained. “Their values of (both) their careers and their cultural lifestyle have always set an example for me, and that's something I wouldn’t have ever gotten anywhere else. One of the greatest experiences of my life was attending BSU just for the purpose of being able to be around them and work with them so closely.”
Finding support and success at BSU
She recalled one time when she was dealing with a particularly difficult hardship; Treuer gave her some comforting advice.
“He told me for the rest of my life and for the rest of my career I'm going to continue to get knocked down, but how you get back up and how you adapt to challenging situations is what is going to make or break you in your career and in your personal life,” she said. “That might sound simple, but when you put it into perspective, it really helped make me see that I am going to have difficult positions throughout my whole life but adaptability is a skill, and being able to bounce back is, too.”
Graves has what she describes as a “relentless work ethic,” balancing a full-time job and full-time school.
Since August 2020, she’s worked as an Ojibwe Culturist for the Red Lake Public School District where she develops Ojibwe language and culture curriculum and assists with language instruction.
While at BSU, she volunteered as a facilitator for the weekly Ojibwe Language Table, and worked as a teaching assistant, tutor and peer advisor. She can also be heard speaking Ojibwe words on the Lake Bemidji State Park Interpretive Mobile App.
Her studies have cost her sleep and she is constantly working, but she reminds herself that making a difference in her community is truly worth it. Additionally, blending her studies with her career has helped in both areas, she said.
“I've been able to take all of these experiences and keep putting them into each other to best benefit whoever I'm working with, whether it was at BSU or now the Red Lake School District,” she said. “My favorite class of my coursework was learning about treaties and federal Indian law. It helped me look around this area and see like ‘wow this is actually what happened in Bemidji or in Brainerd or in Red Lake.’ l was so much more aware of my surroundings, and it made me feel really empowered as an Ojibwe person to know that history, finally.”
Graves has stacked up awards as well, including the Minnesota Indian Scholarship, the Minnesota Indian Teacher Training Program Scholarship, the Elouise Cobell Scholarship for Indigenous Education, University of Minnesota “Honoring American Indian Women” Reception Honoree, the Bemidji State University Ojibwe and Culture Award, and been named to the dean’s list and president’s list. She is also a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program.
Next fall, Graves will enter the doctor of education program in education administration and leadership at St. Cloud State University, and continue to work at the Red Lake School District.
She hopes to produce research and literature on Ojibwe language and history, particularly specific to Red Lake, to use in K-12 classrooms throughout the state. She also hopes to inspire more Ojibwe youth to embark on a similar journey, as she said furthering your education is one of the most important things you can do for your community.
“Working in the Ojibwe language community and learning about Ojibwe culture and history helps us shape our identity as Ojibwe people,” she said. “When you have a background in education, to be able to put that back into our community is the greatest gift we can give after so long of wrongful histories. I think that it's one of the most fulfilling areas to study. You really gain a lot of insight as to how we ended up here and how things are.”