When Micah Highwalking tossed her hat in the air at West Point graduation ceremonies May 22, she was celebrating her mother and her Northern Cheyenne people as much as her own accomplishment.
The 23-year-old, who grew up in Lame Deer, was the first member of her tribe to graduate from the nation’s oldest military academy and one of only five American Indian West Point graduates.
“I still feel like me,” she said after climbing one of the nation’s highest academic mountains. “When we celebrate here, I’m just glad to see everybody.”
And she has been celebrated a lot since arriving home in a brief hiatus between graduation and the beginning of her career as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She presented her full-dress jacket and “tar bucket” parade hat to the tribe for its warriors’ collection. Tribal musicians played an honor song, a flag song and the chief’s song.
“They are the highest honors of our tribe,” she said. “Then they gave me a satin star quilt.”
Her family and tribe hosted a dinner in her honor last week, and her family will pay tribute with a giveaway Saturday at the tribe’s annual powwow. She has been spending her time at home encouraging others, including her younger siblings, to set their goals high, too.
“My dream for them and how I felt I could help them is to go to college and have a career,” she said.
Highwalking’s mother, Cleone Highwalking, set her on the road to West Point early. The military academy’s strict code of conduct came naturally after growing up in her mother’s well-disciplined household, she said.
“We weren’t allowed to run around,” she said. “We did well in school. We played sports all the time.”
During summers, she cared for her younger siblings — two brothers and a sister — while her mother worked. Cleone Highwalking was a police officer on the southeast Montana reservation during Micah’s middle school years. When in Artesia, N.M., for training at the Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement academy, Cleone ran into a cadet at an exclusive military high school in Roswell, N.M. She started asking question and decided that was what she wanted for her daughter.
Micah was thinking basketball. She went through eighth grade at Colstrip, and at the time, Colstrip was stepping into Class B from Class A. The prospects of a basketball career at the elite New Mexico Military Institute boarding school started to look better, she said.
It was an expensive venture. She had some scholarships and her mother helped cover some of the cost. To save for tuition, Micah started her own company while in junior high school, putting together a business plan and marketing studies for a concession business.
“That was something I did on my own with my mother’s help,” she said. “We’d set up at powwows and sometimes just down the street in the summertime.”
Leaving home for high school was hard for a teenager grounded in family, so she kept herself too occupied to get homesick.
“During high school I was busy all the time,” she said. “I did two sports at a time when they overlapped.”
She played basketball, volleyball and tennis and ran track. The 5-foot, 1-inch whirlwind was a point guard on the junior basketball team for New Mexico.
Sen. Max Baucus nominated her to West Point after high school graduation in 2005.
During her years there, she earned a bachelor of science degree in psychology with a minor in systems engineering. Everyone at West Point has to study engineering, she said. She now has an eight-year commitment to the armed forces and a shot at a bright future. When she makes captain, the army will send her to graduate school in a career path of her choice.
Highwalking leaves Sunday for officer basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. On Nov. 10, she will take off for Korea on her first assignment.
“I’m going to be a military police platoon leader,” she said. “I’ll be in charge of about 40 people.”
For her next assignment, she’s hoping for a post in Germany. Travel was among the reasons a military career seemed attractive to her.
Her friends at West Point teased her about becoming the first female American Indian general, and, in truth, she wouldn’t mind. But there are other considerations, Highwalking said.
“For me, I want to keep on loving my job,” she said. “I grew up around so many people who hated their jobs. The main goal in my life is to be happy and have a family and kids.”
And maybe her kids will appreciate her as much as she does her own mother.
“I think my mom had a big part in everything I do,” Highwalking said. “She was a single mother some of the time I was growing up and she broke her back to get my brother and me what we needed.”