MISSOULA – In a sign of the times, the University of Montana presented an honorary doctorate virtually for the first time in its 127-year history. The online honor went to William Yellow Robe Jr., a noted playwright, author, poet and educator.
Born in Poplar, Yellow Robe is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine. His plays include “The Star Quilter,” “Rez Politics,” “Sneaky,” “A Stray Dog” and “Mix Blood Seeds,” among many others. An enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, he is known for mentoring Native students and playwrights and boosting the prominence of American Indian theater in the United States.
UM presented the Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts on June 12 via a choreographed virtual ceremony. The event involved many of Yellow Robe’s friends and colleagues across the country, an honor song performed live from eastern Montana and a video spanning the honoree’s life and career. Speakers included UM President Seth Bodnar, Provost Jon Harbor and interim arts and media Dean John DeBoer – all dressed in their traditional Commencement regalia.
“An honorary doctorate is the highest honor a university can give,” Bodnar said, “and we want to congratulate you on the distinction of being the first to receive our highest award over a virtual platform.”
Yellow Robe seemed moved by the event, especially when Marty Reum and Donovan Archambeault from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation – both recent UM graduates – prepared to sing an honor song.
“What a surprise,” Yellow Robe said. “This is a great honor – the best gift I’ve had all day!”
He had intended to receive his doctorate in person May 9, but UM canceled its traditional Commencement ceremonies due to COVID-19 concerns. When campus officials asked Yellow Robe when and how he wanted to receive his doctorate, he suggested sooner rather than later, and the virtual ceremony was born. (The other honorary doctorate recipients, Bill Franke and the late Bonnie HeavyRunner, will be celebrated at a later date – potentially during in-person ceremonies.)
Since 1985, Yellow Robe Jr. has authored a robust collection of short stories, full-length plays, one-act plays, poems and essays. During the course of his distinguished career, he has received numerous awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, as well as several notable residencies. He is the author of three books, the latest of which, “Restless Spirits,” was released by the SUNY Press last month. The Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board passed a unanimous resolution supporting Yellow Robe’s candidacy to receive an honorary doctorate from UM.
During his remarks, Yellow Robe talked about being the target of racism growing up. “I don’t feel angry toward the people who used to use race to attack me,” he said. “They have a sadness to them.”
As a champion of Native theater, he also revealed his dream to one day return to Montana and tour with a Native American theater production.
The virtual ceremony went well overall, but there were some standard online glitches. People spoke before unmuting their audio. Mortar board hats disappeared into virtual backgrounds. Somewhere a pet dog barked in a far-flung living room. There was silent online clapping. But for the participants, it was all part of the new normal.
The event concluded with UM’s president stepping outside Main Hall with his phone to allow Yellow Robe to hear “Up With Montana” performed in his honor on the clock tower carillon bells.
And the congratulations kept coming the entire time: “We’re proud of you. You come from us.” “You are such an inspiration, Bill. Thank you.” “We are so grateful for your contributions and so, so proud on this important day.”
Yellow Robe said, “I never thought this would ever happen.”