Clysta Cole (Inuit/YuPik and adopted Crow, the adopted daughter of Loettal Wallace, daughter of Robert Cole, granddaughter of Harry and Theodora Cole, great-granddaughter of Mary Holland of Nome, Alaska) joined United Indians in January of 2022 as a Home Visitor with Ina Maka—but her advocacy for families goes much farther back. “I think I always had a strong will to do advocacy work,” Cole says, referring to her strong support of her children in the educational system and beyond. But her advocacy within the political system began with the death of her oldest son, Evitan (Inuit/YuPik, Sioux and adopted Crow), on December 9th, 2018.
Evitan’s relationship with school could be rocky. As a student of color with mental health struggles and an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for his disability, school came with significant challenges. At the time of his death, Evitan was in his sixth year of high school and believed he was still five credits short of graduating. However, Cole later discovered additional credits that were unlisted, meaning he was in fact less than three credits away from graduation at the time of his death. Buoyed by this finding, Cole went to the school district, asking them to issue Evitan with an honorary diploma—but was declined. The school argued that an issue with the law prevented them from issuing a diploma and that they would only provide a diploma when the law changed. Cole took this answer as a challenge.
Cole notes that our youth of color are held to higher standards, despite often struggling with mental health, and school systems are rarely designed to serve them. “When our youth die of homicide, especially youth of color, it’s often not seen as such a devastating death,” she points out: far too many lives are unjustly devalued. Moreover, Cole believes the school system failed her son repeatedly, first by not giving him the support he needed, and then again by declining to acknowledge his hard work through an honorary diploma.
Cole launched into advocacy work, and by the 2020 session, Evitan’s Law was introduced in the WA state senate by Senator Wilson. But while the bill was passed in the Senate, it ran out of time in the House as lawmakers scrambled to respond to the first stages of the pandemic. This delay meant Cole was not able to get Evitan’s diploma the year he would have graduated, a heavy blow.
But Cole refused to give up. She kept in close contact with Senator Wilson, who reintroduced the bill for the 2022 session, and on March 30th, 2022 Governor Inslee signed Evitan’s Law. The bill’s passing ensures parents can receive their child’s honorary diploma if their child was on track to graduate at the time of their death. “Of all the things I’ve achieved,” Cole says, “this will never be forgotten.” She dedicates her work to Evitan, herself, and to all the other Indigenous parents and their children who didn’t get to see their graduation day. Last week, Cole received a call from Evitan’s school: at long last, they are preparing his diploma to be the first issued under Evitan’s Law.
Cole is grateful to her family and community for holding her and walking with her in this dual process of grief and advocacy. Intergenerational trauma impacts families and communities so deeply, she says, but refusing to give in to that trauma, remaining connected to community, has been a vital component in healing and in her advocacy. “I know we are tired of being resilient and exhausted from having to advocate for what is right,” Cole says. “This fight was not easy…but I know that intergenerational trauma feeds off of continued trauma experiences of our people, and that is why I keep going. I don’t want the traumas of myself or my ancestors to take me away from being the wildest dreams of my Indigenous ancestors, but rather to break the generational chains of trauma.” Cole goes on to speak with pride as she describes how her children are becoming advocates themselves, having watched her do this work.
Even with community support, Cole says she doesn’t know how she did it, especially in the first year after losing her son—but she has learned important lessons about advocacy and pushing for change. “When it comes to decolonizing the system, don’t be afraid to use your voice and stand up for what is right. It’s like childbirth: it’s painful, and it hurts—but at the same time we know that baby is coming out. So when it comes to doing what’s right, keep going. That’s how we make change happen.”