In the Spring of 2017, Minerva BC received a compelling Learning to Lead™ application from a high school student in Kamloops. Autumn Walkem, in Grade 11 at the time, expressed a deep interest in developing her confidence, using her voice, and learning about her own potential for leadership. There was a personal stake for Autumn, who wanted to better represent her indigenous community and “be a voice to protect the earth”.
Around the same time, Minerva BC had connected with Ann Naymie, a new donor who wanted to fund a scholarship for a Learning to Lead™ participant. Ann was looking for a recipient that she felt would most positively benefit from the experience, someone that would go on to truly make a difference in the world. Naturally, we connected Ann and Autumn. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Over the past year, the mentoring relationship between Ann and Autumn has blossomed tenfold, as well as Autumn’s leadership development. We have no doubt there is a correlation, as we’ve personally witnessed Autumn’s confidence and leadership ability strengthen with each Minerva community event she’s made the effort to attend from Kamloops (often staying with Ann while she’s in town).
This past week, Autumn gave the valedictorian speech at her high school’s indigenous graduation ceremony. And, of course, Ann was present. With Autumn’s permission, we’ve included her words that beautifully capture the significance of graduation for her indigenous classmates below.
We are honoured to steward this relationship, and to witness the impact of Ann’s contribution on Autumn’s leadership growth in the past year. Thank you for thinking of Minerva BC, Ann, and we hope you continue to think of us, Autumn, as you move through your leadership journey.
Valedictorian speech – Autumn Walkem
My name is Autumn Walkem, and I’m from N’kawmn, of the Nlaka’pamux Nation. My mother is Delilah Walkem, my Yeye is Lorraine Spence, and my great-grandmother is Elizabeth Lytton. I’d like to thank the Secwepemc, because it is on their unceded territory that I was made to feel welcome while I achieved my education. Although our ancestors were enemies, I’m happy to say that my house was never burned down.
Like so many youth here today, I had to leave my reserve in order to get an education. I had to leave my family, my culture, my land, my people; everywhere and everyone that felt like home. Proceeding to switch schools 11 times, I was often lonelier that I can even say.
Academics came easily to me, I could achieve honour roll without trying, and I soon found my classes not very engaging. In my last years of school, all I wanted was to go home to my great-grandma, and learn what I truly needed to know. In 10 years, the textbooks would still be there waiting for me, but could I say the same thing about my elders? I didn’t graduate early because I was smart, I graduated early because I was desperate. When I finished school in January, my great-grandma passed away at 99 years, and I could only be thankful for the 17 years I shared with her.
When I had to sacrifice so much in order to go to school, you can imagine the resentment that started to build. I had plenty of advantages, but they didn’t shield me from the misery:
In 7th grade, my friends were so stressed out my school, they started hurting themselves.
In 8th grade, my friends still had to go to class when they didn’t even want to live.
In 9th grade, I drifted apart from my closest friends, because I would only ever be second to drugs and alcohol.
In 10th grade, I felt that the only people who believed in me were my teachers.
In 11th grade, an old classmate died of depression, and his mother followed soon after.
There were weeks at a time in which I couldn’t bear to be at school. If I was forced to go, I couldn’t process anything that was going on. When a boy was harassing me, and promised he wouldn’t leave me alone until I was his, I was told I should feel flattered, as if it’s a compliment to be seen as something to own. Nobody can tell me that I had highschool easy, just because my high school grades were “great.” I never felt free at school, and I never felt safe.
It’s only here, and only now, that I realize something that I’d always missed before. I’ve never been alone. I’ve never been friendless. I’ve never been the only one going through what I was going through. Here, I see friends, family, teachers, and mentors, an entire community of support. I’m not alone, and I never was.
As indigenous youth, the odds were against us: to commit suicide, to become drug addicted, to drop out, to give up. Every one of you has fought so many battles that I won’t ever know anything about, and you came out alive, sitting before me as warriors. You have shown bravery, resilience, and light, and I am so proud of you.
You lived to this age, while so many of our brothers, sisters, and cousins have not. You completed this education that was never designed for us, and you did well, especially because you maintained your culture and teachings while doing so.
In this community here, we have hunters, dancers, hairstylists, and mechanics. Each of you has a gift that we need, that makes us all stronger because of it. We are united today in this achievement; with this education, we have the voice to tell our story, and we won’t go unheard any longer. With the support of our ancestral knowledge and education, we are the bridge between nations.
When I see all of you, I know we have a future, and I know that it’s worth living for. It will be brilliant because you will be the ones making it, and I promise that I’ll be here writing it, the monsters, battles, legends, and victories. From this point on, you are leaving a legacy for the future generations. We are the new warriors, storytellers, changemakers, leaders. We are the prayers of our ancestors, and the pride of our grandchildren.
Here’s to another era of legends and storytellers. Congratulations to all my fellow graduates, you are light and you are fire.
All my relations.