She’s the first ever Native valedictorian for her high school and for Salt Lake City

Navajo student Kayden Denny made history in representing the top of her class for Highland High this year. At her graduation, she celebrated that milestone with a special hoop dance in place of a speech.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayden Denny with her sister Jace and mother Tanya after performing a Native American hoop dance at Highland High School's graduation in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 9, 2023.

Kayden Denny figured there probably hadn’t been a lot of past valedictorians at her school who looked like her.

But after she heard she’d earned the accolade, Denny and her adviser flipped through musty, yellowed yearbook pages from Highland High’s archives and realized that wasn’t quite the case: There actually had never been one like her before. Not at her school. And not in the history of Salt Lake City School District.

With her selection this year, Denny became the first Native American student to be at the top of her graduating class and to hold that academic title for Utah’s capital city district.

“It’s crazy,” Denny said. “I was like, dude, this is literally history. I’m making history.”

The 18-year-old Diné, or Navajo, student remembers dancing with excitement about the milestone. The six decades of yearbooks dated as far back as she and her Native American school adviser, Lornie D. Pinnecoose, could find. Highland High had its first graduating class in 1959, and Salt Lake City School District opened three years before that.

As Denny happily stepped and swayed around the pages spread around the floor, with smiling photos of the mostly white valedictorians looking back at her, she got an idea.

A few weeks later, she was dancing up and down in the same way to the beat of a drum on the stage of her June 9 graduation at the Huntsman Center.

They were the familiar steps she’d danced most of her life, starting at the age of 4 or 5 when her less shy little sister, Jace, would pull her into the powwow circle. Since then, Denny has leaned in and loved it, becoming a well-known performer who does several traditional dances on the Western powwow circuit, including fancy shawl, jingle dress and hoop dancing.

As valedictorian, Denny felt that performing — instead of giving the traditional speech — was more true to herself and her family, a way to take pride in her culture and to show what being the first Indigenous student with that honor meant. She wanted her classmates to see it.

“For me, it’s a lot better than words,” she said.

Denny was one of 17 students named valedictorians this year at Highland High, all of whom had a 4.0 or higher GPA (a student who gets straight A’s earns a 4.0, but excelling at advanced, college-level classes can give students points beyond that). Denny jokes and thanks her parents for pushing her — “They wouldn’t let me get anything less than a 4.0,” she said with a laugh.

A handful of those top students were selected to speak or, as in Denny’s case, present at graduation.

About an hour into the ceremony, Denny ran backstage to swap out her cap and gown for a headband and traditional long dress, patterned in red, black and white, with a teepee design on the front to represent her late grandfather, Damon, who was a medicine man.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayden Denny performs a Native American Hoop Dance at Highland High School's graduation in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 9, 2023. At left is Tonka Chee.

The colors of the dress were a little surprise for her extended family, who didn’t know she’d been accepted at the University of Utah, where she’ll be attending classes in the fall. You could hear one section of the auditorium gasp and scream when Denny walked out on stage and they realized the significance.

For the graduation ceremony, Denny chose to do a hoop dance, which she feels particularly close to.

“It’s a storytelling dance. You can imagine anything to it,” she said. “Whenever I do the hoop dance, it’s my story.”

The story of Denny’s dance

As the drumming and chanting started — done by her younger sister, Jace, who just finished her sophomore year at Highland, and a close friend, Lane Neaman — Denny kicked up the first hoop to loud cheers from the crowd of graduates and family members.

She was joined on stage by Tonka Chee, who is Navajo and Hopi and danced the traditional men’s part alongside her.

The dance, Denny said, has no boundaries. Some performers envision flowers, eagles, bears and monsters into it. And with each hoop added, it becomes more complex, more of a balance.

At one point, Denny was dancing with eight hoops, spread across her shoulders like wings and then brought together into a sphere like the earth.

With her choreography, she has made the dance into a representation of her family, she said.

The biggest part of that, she said, is being able to embrace and be proud of the dance. Her grandma Sarah, Denny said, often had to hide her culture.

Her grandma grew up in southern Utah at a time when white federal agents would try to collect Native kids from their homes and force them to attend government boarding schools, where records show they faced harsh treatment, were beaten for speaking their language and had their traditional hair cut short.

Growing up, Denny said, she would listen to her grandma recount stories of trying to avoid the agents. Sarah, along with her siblings, would hide in their family’s sheep corral so they wouldn’t be discovered.

“It was tinier than a shed,” Denny said. “And they would just stay in there for hours. They had to do a lot of hiding to avoid going into boarding schools.”

Some of that, along with other experiences, made Denny’s grandparents scared to openly practice their traditions.

“I’m just glad I’m able to share my culture now, when they couldn’t when they were younger,” Denny said. “It’s truly life-changing that I’m able to do this at Highland and of my own free will. I get to do it because I love it.”

Sarah was there at the graduation ceremony, watching her granddaughter on stage and beaming. And Denny also attached her grandma’s eagle feather — which Sarah got from her parents — to her beaded mortarboard, so she could carry her and 150 years of family tradition with her when she got her diploma.

In the dance, Denny also represents her late grandpa, who spoke to her of the importance of the number four in their culture: four stages of life (baby, child, teen, adult), four directions (north, south, east, west), four elements (water, fire, air, earth). Denny also has four clans: Sleeping Rock, Edge Water, Bitter Water and Towering House.

In her hoop dancing, Denny ends with four hoops on each side of her body and does most of her spins in fours. Her mom is part of the dance, too; she helped her design the dress (she also beaded Denny’s graduation cap). And her dad helped fashion the hoops out of pipes. There are also nods to her other set of grandparents, including her late grandpa and her grandma, who watched the livestream of the graduation as she drove up to see Denny.

“I’m representing my family, my friends, everyone who supported me to get here,” she said. “It’s the determination, the complexity.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kayden Denny takes a selfie with Annie Pasmann and Eleanor Scoville at Highland High School's graduation in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 9, 2023.

Denny smiled throughout the dance as the crowded cheered her on — her favorite part is hearing that reaction. And by the end, everyone in the arena was standing in ovation. Their applause lasted almost as long as her four-minute performance. And it was so loud that it drowned out the pomp and circumstance music that had been turned on in the background.

Highland Principal Jeremy Chatterton tried to speak at the dais after, but had to keep pausing until the audience quieted.

“We have some amazing talent in this class,” he said to another round of roaring claps.

Pushing for Native success

Chatterton said during the ceremony that the district was able to confirm that Denny was the first Native American valedictorian in Salt Lake City since at least 1972, when the landmark Indian Education Act passed to better serve Indigenous students in public schools.

At Highland High this year, Denny was one of just 30 Native students at the school, which also included her sister and amounts to 1.5% of the student body there, according to enrollment numbers from the Utah State Board of Education. And she’s one of 6,344 total statewide, for all grade levels — less than 1% of the student body in Utah overall.

Denny said she’s heard people say throughout her life that they didn’t know Indigenous people still existed, suggesting they’d gone extinct. It’s hurtful, she noted, and wrong.

So Denny spent much of her time in high school trying to draw attention to underserved or underrepresented students like her. In her senior year, she started the Native American Club at Highland High. Anyone was welcome, she said, to come learn about tribes. She made posters that featured famous American Indians and hung them around the halls. And she organized a weeklong celebration of Native peoples in Utah.

“One of my things in life is to tell people that Native Americans are still here and you can still learn about them,” Denny said.

She also started what’s called “Tradition Fest” at Highland, where cultural groups came in and talked about their backgrounds and performed. Denny brought in dancers from Thailand, the Polynesian Islands and different Native American groups.

On top of that and her perfect GPA, Denny boasts an impressive list of extracurriculars. She served in student government her junior and senior years, was a member of the National Honor Society, was awarded Student of Year, and participated in volleyball, basketball, track and lacrosse.

(Salt Lake City School District) Pictured is Kayden Denny in her Highland High class sweater.

Denny did all of that, too, while going through high school during the COVID-19 pandemic, which started at the end of her freshman year and had her learning on Zoom for the start of her sophomore year.

Chatterton captured it as this graduating class having “one of the most unique high school experiences that any of us could’ve ever imagined.”

Denny hopes she was able to cap that for her classmates with one of the most unique graduation ceremony. And she hopes, too, that it might inspire other students like her to also achieve — whether that’s becoming a valedictorian, dancing, or something else.

Moving forward, Denny plans to study aerospace engineering in college. She is obsessed with space and hopes to someday work on rockets for NASA.

She also wants to keep dancing. Surely, she’ll keep making history, too.