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Spreading a message of hope

Miss Indian World has big goals for tribes, from education to suicide prevention
May 4, 2016

ASU law student Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn — newly crowned Miss Indian World — passionate about Native education, suicide prevention and language preservation

The five judges of the 2016 Miss Indian World pageant didn’t stand a chance.

Once ASU law student Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn stood before them last Saturday night in front of a capacity crowd at the 33rd annual Gathering of NationsThe event draws more than 100,000 competitive dancers and spectators from across the U.S. and parts of Canada and Mexico, and was streamed worldwide. The pageant closed three days of festivities at what’s considered North America’s largest powwow. at the University of New Mexico arena in Albuquerque, they might as well have raised the white flag.

It helped that Finn had a clever strategy in place — make those judges smile big.

“I wanted the judges to crack because they sat so still and were stoic,” said the 25-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She was chosen from among 24 Native American women from different tribes and traditions.

“I was really cheesing it out as I was giving my answers and eventually I got them to crack — every single one of them. I made them all smile. So that’s why I guess I won.”

It’s hard not to smile when Ta’Sheena Finn enters a room. Her infectious laugh, megawatt smile, bubbly charm and eternally optimistic outlook have taken her far from her humble beginnings in Porcupine, North Dakota, population 200.

Finn says her parents did an excellent job of shielding her from the hardships of life as she reflects back as an adult.

“I didn’t have the best educational opportunities and wasn’t provided with the things that others had,” Finn said. “I grew up on the reservation, and we ate commodity cheese in one of the poorest counties in the state. But I never looked at it that way, though. To me, it’s still a beautiful place regardless of the small population, poverty level or jobless rate. It’s still home.”

ASU law student Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn is crowned Miss Indian World 2016
ASU law student Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn is crowned 2016 Miss Indian World at the 33rd annual Gathering of Nations on Saturday in Albuquerque. Photo courtesy Gathering of Nations


As Miss Indian World, Finn will not be able to see home for a while. She’ll be traveling around the world for an entire year as a goodwill ambassador. She’ll visit Native and indigenous communities and deliver three key messages on education, suicide prevention and language preservation.

Finn freely admits her education was a struggle. Although she did well, she dealt with racism, isolation and encountered a major health issue, which included the removal of a few tumors in her neck. Through it all, she obtained a degree in criminal justice with a minor in international business at Minot State University in Bismarck, North Dakota.

“The message there is very simple,” Finn said. “Never give up. I went through a slew of treatments and surgeries and still graduated in four years.”

Her message regarding suicide prevention is more nuanced. She said the Standing Rock Nation has been hit with a suicide epidemic ever since she was born and that her tribe has declared three state of emergencies in her lifetime.

“Suicide is the second-leading cause [of death] for Native youth in the United States, and everything is reactive rather than proactive,” Finn said. “A lot of times youth are not being heard and no one’s looking for the signs.”

Finn said a large part of the issue is that suicide is a taboo subject on the reservation and literally is a word that is not supposed to be mentioned among her people.

“That’s something Natives don’t want to deal with culturally, and we should say something and speak up,” Finn said. “I don’t feel like the old way is working, and so I’m going to talk about it. We all need to walk out of the darkness together.”

Finn also wants to walk towards restoring indigenous language, which she says is dissipating at an alarming rate. She learned this when she volunteered as a language teacher in Head Start and taught basic Lakota to 3- to 5-year-olds.

“I want to instill a desire in Native people to start learning their language,” Finn said. “Learning the language is healing in a lot of ways, and it makes you more of a balanced person spiritually, culturally and mentally.”

“That’s [suicide] something Natives don’t want to deal with culturally, and we should say something and speak up. I don’t feel like the old way is working, and so I’m going to talk about it. We all need to walk out of the darkness together.”
— Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, ASU law student and newly crowned Miss Indian World

Kate Rosier, the executive director of ASU’s Indian Law Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the key to Finn’s success is being a well-rounded person.

“Our program has been very successful at recruiting talented Native American students who are connected to their communities and want to serve Indian country. Danielle is one of these talented law students,” Rosier said. “She knows where she comes from and understands the challenges tribes and Native people face daily. She is smart, talented and always the first to volunteer on community projects. During her first year of law school she had the highest number of volunteer/pro bono hours in her class. Danielle will be a great Miss Indian World.”

Striking a balance has been a challenge for Finn lately. Her life has been a swirl of non-stop activity ever since she flew back from Albuquerque on Monday.

She has to ace three exams by the end of this week so she can clear the way to make her first appearance as Miss Indian World at Lehi Elementary School in Mesa. After that, she’ll be packing her bags as part of a Disney cruise that starts in mid-May, taking off from San Diego and making various stops in Mexico.

This summer she’ll head to England, where she’ll participate in a monthlong study-abroad program at Queen's University as part of her legal studies at ASU and plans to graduate with a juris doctorate in December. She says she’ll take a breather after, studying for the bar exam in February 2017.

Finn’s ultimate plan is return to North Dakota as the general counsel of her tribe.

“Our tribe usually hires non-Native attorneys, and they just don’t have that same level of commitment to our community,” Finn said. “They see it as a job and can leave every five years. I would stay there for a lifetime because these are my people and I want to fight for them every day.”


Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now



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Medieval times

The history behind graduation's gowns, medals and banners.
May 6, 2016

The history and the meaning behind the regalia of ASU's commencement

Arizona State University may be ranked No. 1 in the nation for innovation, but when it comes to graduation, it goes medieval.

Consider this: The leaders of an institution of knowledge march in behind someone carrying a fearsome weapon of war. Erudite faculty are led by a banner designed as a visual aid for illiterate people in battle. And everyone wears robes originally intended to keep them warm in chilly buildings in a damp climate.

“In this very modern ceremony, we have these ancient traditions,” said Melissa Werner, director of university ceremonies and protocol officer. “A lot of the iconography has to do with the Middle Ages period. ... As the person who puts on commencement, it’s important I know that history.”

Werner is in effect the keeper of ASU’s crown jewels. “I don’t have a tower,” she said. “I have a closet on the third floor.”

As students and loved ones sit in the audience at the May 9 commencement ceremonies wondering what the panoply signifies, here’s a quick guide.

The President’s Chain of Office

This — seen at the top of this story — is the huge medallion university President Michael Crow wears that looks a bit like something worn by Flavor Flav in 1985. It’s a silver rope woven from strands of hand-turned links, holding a medallion 6 inches in diameter that reverses to reveal the ASU seal in gold on one side and silver and turquoise circles on the other. (Below you will find a photo of the back of it, which is rarely seen.)

The back of the President’s Chain of Office medallion.

“We don’t pull it out unless it’s a formal event,” Werner said. The chain of office, like the ceremonial mace (more on that in a bit), is only used at ceremonies in which faculty members are in full academic regalia, such as the Inauguration of the ASU President, University Commencement, Faculty Assemblies, Regent's Professor Induction Ceremonies and Convocation.

Both the chain and mace were created to celebrate ASU’s centennial in 1985. Professor of art David Pimentel hand-crafted them with “austere elegance and traditional Southwestern motifs.”  Not every university has a chain or mace, according to Werner. “It’s too bad, because they are special pieces,” she said.

Fun fact: The medallion isn’t as heavy as it looks.

The Ceremonial Mace

A mace was used in medieval times to crush heads into raspberry jam. (The movie “Braveheart” has vivid depictions of maces being used in action.)

“It’s literally a weapon of war,” Werner said. “Ours is very pretty. ... It represents the authority of the institution.”

ASU's Ceremonial Mace.

ASU’s Ceremonial Mace is made from Arizona materials. It’s one solid piece of mesquite, approximately 3.5 feet long, weighing 8 pounds. The head has four sterling silver blades and is banded with copper, Morenci turquoise, and a silver ring on which the words “Arizona State University” are embossed. The turquoise inlay was cut and polished by Navajo jeweler Richard Charlie of Mesa. The ASU seal is embossed in silver on the heel of the mace.

When Werner first got her job, she went to retrieve the mace from the library. It was wrapped in bubble wrap in a lamp box. Now it’s kept in a custom-made velvet bag in a case in a locked cabinet in a locked closet.

It’s carried in formal university ceremonies by a grand marshal. When the mace is “placed” (set down), the academic ceremony can begin. In United Kingdom House of Commons sessions, their ceremonial mace is carried in and placed on or under a table. Without the mace placed, the house is not legally convened and members cannot debate.

The earliest ceremonial maces were carried by sergeants at arms around the time of Richard I. Given that that was the late 12th century, when maces were still being used to bash in skulls, the maces were likely more than ceremonial. About the beginning of the 15th century, they evolved to a purely ceremonial instrument used by academicians in rituals. The oldest known ceremonial mace is from St. Andrew University in Scotland, used in 1438.

Fun fact: The mace also isn’t as heavy as it looks, although Werner tells grand marshals they can cradle it instead of carrying it upright if it gets to be too much.


Gonfalons are heraldic banners. The faculty march in behind their gonfalon, which is different for each college. “This is the visual representation of the college,” Werner said.

ASU's Graduate Commencement in fall 2015.

Gonfalons were used to mark positions on battlefields for troops, none of whom could read. “It really is the identifier for that city-state,” Werner said. “They were used in war.”


One would expect the robes and colors to be as ancient as everything else and originate in places like Perugia and Heidelberg. Shockingly, it’s all mostly American and not very old at all.

Academic dress in Europe has always been all over the place, varying from country to country and institution to institution.

We can thank Gardner Cotrell Leonard, from Albany, New York, for setting it all straight. He designed the gowns for his class at Williams College in 1887. He was fascinated with the subject and wrote a paper on the subject. (It should also be mentioned his family conveniently owned an academic regalia company.)

After the publication of his paper in 1893, Leonard was invited to work with an intercollegiate commission made up of representatives of leading institutions to establish a system of academic apparel. The commission met at Columbia University in 1895 and adopted a code of academic dress, which besides regulating the cut, style and materials of the gowns, prescribed the colors representing the different fields of learning.

For instance, purple is for law and jurisprudence, gold is for psychology and copper represents economics.

“At ASU it’s challenging because we are so cross-disciplinary,” Werner said. Changing the colors is not an option. With 400 majors at the university, “we try to fit them.”

“We look for the broadest area in assigning colors,” she said. For instance, all engineering hoods are orange, even if the wearer has a degree in bioengineering.

Sustainability is still up in the air. Kelly green represents medicine, so that was taken.

“We ended up with what’s called scarab green,” Werner said. “I felt we had an obligation as the first school of sustainability in the country to be thoughtful.”

Werner doesn’t know what colors other sustainability schools are choosing for their hoods. ASU’s choice has been submitted to the American Council on Education, the governing body for such things, but it hasn’t been reviewed. The academic costume code hasn’t been reviewed in decades, according to Werner.

Stripes on the robe sleeves are a simple code. Undergrads get one stripe, grad students get two, doctors get three, and the university president gets four.

The tassel

Originally the tassel was used to repair tears in robes. Turning the tassel is a ritual within the tradition of commencement. When students can’t remember what side of the mortarboard it sits on, Werner tells them, “Left as you leave.”

New graduates turn their tassels at the Spring 2015 Undergraduate Commencement

It’s a ritual resurrected at ASU eight or nine years ago. What’s it mean? “You officially had your degree conferred,” said Werner, co-founder of the North American Association of Commencement Officers.

“Commencement is a huge deal,” she said. “It’s as big as a wedding or the birth of a child. It’s a huge milestone. ... It needs to be an experience they’ll remember that ties them to the institution. ... I want them to be excited. This is their party.”


Spring 2016 Commencement

Graduate Commencement: 10:30 a.m. Monday, May 9, at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Undergraduate Commencement: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 9, at Chase Field in Phoenix.

More details, such as times and locations for individual convocations; ticket information; details about photos, video and flowers; and a list of prohibited items for Chase Field:

Profiles of some outstanding graduates:


Mace, medallion and tassel (from spring 2015 Undergraduate Commencement) photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now; gonfalon photo (from fall 2015 Graduate Commencement) by Andy DeLisle/ASU


Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU Now