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Campus & Community

A Warm Embrace for Graduating Indigenous Students

UMD Hosts Inaugural Blanket Ceremony for Seniors

By Sala Levin ’10

students stand with blankets draped on shoulders as woman drums

Graduating seniors with Native heritage were honored on Saturday at the university’s first blanket ceremony, a traditional Native celebration. Assistant Professor Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner led a drum ceremony at the event. Samuel Celentano, a December 2023 graduate (below), attended with his parents.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

To the pounding of a deer hide drum, a group of students stood with wool blankets draped around their shoulders, wrapped up in the warmth of the colorful fabric and the well wishes of their community.

On Saturday, University of Maryland seniors with Native American heritage gathered for the university’s first blanket ceremony, a tradition that marks significant milestones in life. Led by Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner, founding director of UMD’s new Indigenous Futures Lab and assistant professor in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the inaugural event honored the students for their involvement in the Native community on campus and sent them off with a keepsake of their time at Maryland. 

“When we wrap the blanket around them, that represents us all collectively wrapping our arms around that person who we’re very proud of,” said Meissner, who’s of Luiseño and Cupeño heritage.

woman takes photo of student with parents

The blanket ceremony is an ancient one practiced by many tribes, each bringing its own nuances, explained Meissner, who put together the event with Kyrsha Balderas, the Native and Indigenous student involvement coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy. They’re common at weddings and sometimes found at end-of-life celebrations, but have recently become especially popular at universities as a way of recognizing graduating seniors. (“This ceremony is a more pan-Indigenous way of doing it,” she said.)

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“I’m so grateful and blessed to be receiving this blanket and to have such a beautiful celebration,” said Paulina Martinez ’24, president of the university’s Native American and Indigenous Student Union (NAISU) this year. “It’s so wonderful seeing how much Indigenous involvement—faculty and students—has grown.”

As the seniors stood enveloped in their blankets, which came from Indigenous artists through the Native-owned company Eighth Generation, Meissner led a drum ceremony, singing a song she’d written. Adapting a verse from a longer prayer, Meissner sang in ’ataaxum pomtéela, the Luiseño language.

six students with blankets draped around them

“Children, our life-giving roots, each word I learn is a little prayer for you,” sang Meissner. “I pray that you grow well, drinking the nourishment of our language. I pray that you listen to our elders and their songs. I pray that you know the stars, and in them, our ancestors. Children, our life-giving roots, I am always praying for you.”

While some people display their blankets decoratively, many use them as they’re intended.

Samuel Celentano ’23, who graduated in December, said that the blanket was an ideal gift for him. “I was just thinking last night—I was lying on the floor and I was like, ‘I’m so cold!’” Celentano said. “And then I remembered there was the blanket ceremony today, so I was like, ‘Yes—perfect.”

Martinez also had practical plans for her blanket. “I’ve been wanting a beautiful blanket like this for those chilly nights when I’d be laying it out on a field and just looking at the stars,” she said.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.