Julie Buchholtz spoke to graduates, family, friends, and educators at Malcolm High School Commencement Thursday evening to encourage future success by reading her Own Voices, Own Stories Award winning children's book, ''Who Am I?' 'asked the little brown girl."
Buchholtz's story answers a pivotal question burning in the minds of too many young Native Americans.
First, Malcolm Principal Sandra Sawyer introduced her lifelong friend to the Malcolm crowd with a short biography:
"Julie is originally from Sault Ste. Marie, but has been a resident of Brimley for over 23 years. She is married to Larry, the mother of two twin boys, Jake and Sam, and a daughter, Sydney, who is also graduating this year. Julie is a former teacher, the education director for the Boys and Girls Club of Bay Mills, and currently works for Lake Superior State University Charter Schools. Julie is a graduate of Sault Area High School. She holds both a bachlor's degree in elementary education, as well as a masters degree in early childhood education from Central Michigan University (CMU). She is a proud member of the Bay Mills Tribe of Chippewa Indians. In her free time, you will find Julie walking the shores of Lake Superior, picking up beach glass, rocks, driftwood, or anything else that strikes her fancy. She also enjoys making jewelry from the items found along her beach excursions, and has a business selling her creations called Superior imperfections."
As the present LSSU Charter Office Academic Assessment Specialist, Buchholtz evaluates academic performance for up to 21 public school academy districts across Michigan.
According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the American Indian and Alaska Native demographic ranked the highest in national school dropout rates in 2021 at 10.2 percent. Although this number has decreased significantly from 15.4 percent in 2010, Buchholtz, along with the staff of Sault Area Public Schools are on a mission to decrease drop out rates.
"Our Sault Area Public Schools work very closely with our tribal communities," Sawyer said, asking all tribal graduates to stand for applause. "As most of you know, our community is 36 percent, if not higher, Native American. A lot of our student relations and business relations work with the tribal department. One of the highest dropout rates in the country is our Native American students, so I just want to say thank you to all of our Native graduates for trying to curve that dropout rate. All of you that just stood up, thank you very much. Your Native community is very, very proud of you."
Buchholtz, for one, sought to be the change she wanted to see in the lives of young Native Americans. This meant digging deep down to her roots to ask what helps minority and economically disadvantage youth succeed. She concluded the reason was personal "grit," defining the term as perseverance and passion for long term goals.
"We lived on and off of public assistance throughout my entire childhood," Buchholtz said, coming from a poverty stricken, single-family foundation. "We didn't have a car until I was in high school, so we rode our bikes and walked everywhere. We would pick-up cans on Sunday mornings to earn a little extra money and bring those back for change. We loaded our laundry on laundry baskets, hoisted them on our bikes and rode to the washeteria. I began working at the age of 13 or 14, not for luxury items, but to contribute to the family. You see, there's different types of poverty. There is financial poverty, but there is also intellectual poverty. Fortunately, even though I didn't have those material things, I was exposed to the important things. I was exposed to art, literature, music, and education was valued."
She credited her mother for much her own "grit" and success, inspired by watching her work hard and study into the night to earn an undergraduate degree from LSSU and graduate degree from Northern Michigan University (NMU).
But how could Buchholtz pass on such inspiration? The answer came to her while walking along the shoreline and in other forms of meditation. She would define Native American identity with great pride, joy, and respect.
So, Buchholtz unveiled the contents of ''Who Am I?" to Malcolm graduates, calling it "pertinent" at the time.
To summarize, the "brown skinned girl" asked her "big brown mama" who exactly she was. The mother answered by telling her daughter she was all of these great things: "You are the wind that scatters, moving seeds across the field, providing nourishment for our people" and "You are the fire that burns, dancing flames of red and orange, fending off the darkness." The mother defined her daughter as the eagle, rain, sun, star, oak tree, wild rose, and so much more.
The story, "Who Am I?" came to Buchholtz two years ago and in one month's time. It was written in a single sitting and submitted to the recent Sleeping Bear Press Own Voices, Own Stories contest for new authors seeking to represent members of the LGBTQ+ community and minorities. The book won.