CANTON -- A Mohawk Nation matriarch will be the keynote speaker and receive an honorary doctorate at SUNY Canton's 109th commencement ceremony.
The event will be at 10:30 a.m. May 13, in the Roos House Convocation, Athletic and Recreation Center.
As a condoled Bear Clan matron of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, Wa'kerakats:te, who also goes by Louise McDonald Herne, has worked for more than a decade to continue the historical and traditional strength of the Haudenosaunee through education and empowerment initiatives.
During the ceremony, she will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in recognition of her contributions.
"Like her ancestors who built stable and bountiful communities, Ms. Herne is making the same efforts by developing and cultivating rich opportunities for her people," said SUNY Canton President Zvi Szafran. "We're honored to celebrate her untiring work to preserve her culture, as well as to improve the overall health and economic standing of the Mohawk Nation."
One of her most influential societal contributions is her work to revive the Oheró:kon Rites of Passage ceremony, which helps youth make their transition into adulthood. She said renewing the ancient ritual was intended to combat social ills, such as drug abuse and suicide, and reconnect youth with their identity as indigenous people. She also secured grant funding to expand the rites of passage to other Haudenosaunee communities across Ontario, and as a result, the program earned the 2015 Harvard Kennedy School's prestigious "Honoring Nations" award for exemplary tribal governance.
She is also a founding member of the Konon:kwe Council, a grassroots organization that develops and advances policies to end domestic violence. Through this work, she has mentored and empowered young women to use their voice and stand in their rightful place of honor within their communities.
Herne visited SUNY Canton in 2015 to discuss ESPN's documentary "Keepers of the Game," which chronicles the trials of the Salmon River High School girls' lacrosse team as they broke down barriers in a sport that Native American culture traditionally reserves for men. She and her daughter, Tsiotenhariio, one of the team members, were central figures in the film. Tsiotenhariio went on to play for SUNY Canton's women's lacrosse team during the 2016 season.
In addition to Bear Clan matron, Herne is also an indigenous knowledge keeper and Haudenosaunee knowledge guardian, helping to preserve traditional culture, traditions and language for future generations. Her professional area of research is the Haudenosaunee women and their influence on early feminism, and in 2016 she was recognized as a distinguished scholar in indigenous studies by the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning. She is the first indigenous woman to receive this honor.
"Ms. Herne is ever mindful of the importance to record and recognize the past and balance it with the needs of the future, and most importantly, provide opportunities for our youth," Szafran said in a news release.
Growing up, Herne said there was a lack of emphasis on formal education. However, the concepts she learned from her mother were something that could not be measured in the form of a degree.
"She was an oracle of knowledge who gave me an appreciation for informed ideas and the value of intelligent discussion and argument, with a respect for both sides," Herne said in a release from SUNY Canton. "The oratory skill with which she shared our history and culture taught me about the land where our people came from, their ideals and morals, as well as what they held as important."
She advocates for an education system that allows for individual prosperity and places value on students' uniqueness and ancestral history.
Herne resides on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation with her husband, six children and seven grandchildren.