The ritual of graduation is the same everywhere:
Students stand in line, decked out in the academy’s starchy robes, torn between the moment’s sentimentality and surrealism, as they wait to receive their diploma – a miraculous piece of paper that does not explain yet perfectly signifies the essays, problem sets, late nights and library hours they’ve put in to attain a bachelor’s degree.
But at Fort Lewis College – where today 431 students will graduate – the rite is slightly different.
It’s FLC’s tradition for the Bala Sinem Choir, a coed Native American group, to provide the ceremony’s moving and historically significant musical prologue – a soaring combination of traditional drumming and hymnal melodies.
Yvonne Bilinski, director of FLC’s Native American Center, said that Bala Sinem Choir, founded in 1970, is one of FLC’s oldest Native American traditions.
“At 43 years old, it’s almost as old as the powwow,” she said.
At first, Bala Sinem Choir was a club and popular feature of what was then known as the Intercultural Center, she said. “That was the early, first foray into providing a place where Native American students could socialize, meet and talk with teachers.”
The choir, which has always been insistently interdenominational and intertribal, offered Native American students a unique entrée into other Native American cultures.
But over four decades, it also struggled with money, its membership wavering between three and 40, and subsisted only by taking gig after gig in town.
Then, 10 years ago, Bilinski said, the college recognized the choir’s singular importance to campus, and started offering it as a class.
“I think it’s a special recognition of the special role of Native Americans on campus. There aren’t too many campuses around here that have choirs like Bala Sinem,” she said.
Louis Aragon, Bala Sinem’s current instructor, said today, the choir stands about 20 strong and practices twice a week throughout the school year.
Though its repertoire remains strictly Native American, with members teaching the group the songs of their tribe, its membership has always been diverse.
“It’s mostly Native American, but we have some Anglo and Asian students as well as African-American,” he said.
“We’re a mixture, all people. And not only FLC students and alumni. My drum is open to whoever’s called by it,” he said.
Jered Canty, an FLC alumnus who used to instruct the choir and still sings in it, said the group’s performance – a combination of singing and traditional Native American instruments – has poignancy for both choir members and the audience.
“It’s an honorary thing we do every commencement. It’s excellent. We go to a lot of powwows and perform at a lot of events. But there’s nothing like actually graduating from FLC, and there’s no feeling better than when you get a standing ovation,” he said.
Last year, the choir got double encores.
Much like a college education, Aragon said, the value of Bala Sinem deepens on leaving school. Some students had never been around a drum before joining Bala Sinem.
“They can get familiar with the sacred instruments,” he said. “Then they move on and take that with them, as part of their life – whether back to their own Native communities or however far they want to go.”