Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

‘It was shameful:’ Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin on Hinckley-Finlayson graduation controversy

People in a school gym
High school graduating senior Kaiya Wilson addresses the Hinckley-Finlayson school board on Monday asking the board to allow a Native drum group to perform at the school's graduation ceremony.
Courtesy of Kaiya Wilson

There’s controversy over the upcoming graduation ceremony for Hinckley-Finlayson High School. On Monday, the school board announced the Native American Student Association will no longer have the opportunity to play the Ojibwe Honor Song with its drum group at graduation next Friday.

More than 40 students walked out of class Wednesday in protest. They say that their culture is being silenced, even as Native American students make up about a quarter of the student body. Students say they’ll continue walkouts and silent protests until graduation day.

The district superintendent said in a statement that the reason is to ensure that graduation focuses on graduating students rather than extracurricular student activities. Melanie Benjamin Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer with perspective on the situation.

Read more Hinckley-Finlayson schools face blowback for banning Native drum group at graduation

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: There is controversy over the upcoming graduation ceremony for Hinckley-Finlayson High School. On Monday, the school board announced the Native American Student Association will no longer have the opportunity to play the Ojibwe Honor Song with its drum group at graduation next Friday. More than 40 students walked out of class Tuesday in protest. They say that, as a quarter of the student body, their culture is being silenced. Students say they'll continue walkouts and silent protests until graduation day. The district superintendent said in a statement that the reason is to ensure that graduation focuses on graduating students rather than extracurricular student activities.

Melanie Benjamin is Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive. She joins us right now with some perspective. Chair Benjamin, thanks for taking the time. Good to hear your voice again.

MELANIE BENJAMIN: Yeah, [SPEAKING OJIBWE] greetings. Thank you for having me on today.

CATHY WURZER: What was your first thought when you heard about the school-board decision?

MELANIE BENJAMIN: It was shameful. It was so disappointing. It was such a hit in the stomach to these students that graduation is such a prideful accomplishment in their life, and to say that their way of life is not acceptable in the school district during graduation, it's just misguided, and it's sad. It's sad at the end of the day.

CATHY WURZER: You know, of course, there are people who hear the story and say, well, wait a minute. Now, this is a public-school ceremony to honor all the graduating seniors. Why just focus in having the drum song for the Native students? What do you say to that?

MELANIE BENJAMIN: Well, that drum song is for everyone. Yes, it's Anishinaabe. It's our Indian way of life, but that pertains to everyone. It doesn't just only focus on the American Indian students, but it's everyone in that room, all of the parents of the students and the extended family members. It is for all of us, not only the American Indian students.

CATHY WURZER: Tell me about the importance of the Honor Song.

MELANIE BENJAMIN: Well, the Honor Song is to give recognition to those individuals, and for this situation, it is those graduates, and they have accomplished a huge amount, along with their non-Indian students. High-school graduation and moving into your next chapter of your life, we need to celebrate that. We need to celebrate our students meeting this huge accomplishment and achievement of being part of the school system and then moving into adult life, and it's about that recognition. It's about showing that you are good, that you have the ability to move on in your life for more positive things to give back to your communities, to be a good citizen for all of us involved.

CATHY WURZER: Apparently, the school board voted after hearing from the district attorney who says the drum-group participation could veer into problems with separation of church and state under the Constitution. Is the tribal drum group religious or cultural? I would think it would be cultural, right?

MELANIE BENJAMIN: Yeah, it's a cultural situation. It's a way of life. And one I think of just recently at the University of Minnesota, Morris, they had a graduation. They had a drum group there. The attorney general has weighed in on different situations, and you would think from that legal perspective if there were something wrong that it wouldn't be happening at the University of Minnesota systems.

And yeah, it's cultural. And to think that this is not a good thing for us as Minnesotans because we are a diverse people. We all live together, and we have shared hopes and dreams and moving forward, and to deny American Indian students this one aspect of a positive environment turns that into very hurtful feelings for these students and families.

CATHY WURZER: Chair Benjamin, from your perspective, do you have any thoughts as to why the Hinckley-Finlayson High School board changed the rules this year?

MELANIE BENJAMIN: That would be a good question for them, wouldn't it? But when I think about American Indian people and across this United States, that even to talk about us as an extra curriculum group, and we've been experiencing those types of definitions of us. And even on public national news, we were named as Indigenous creatures. And then we were also, in terms of voting, we were reviewed as something else.

And so it's just a trend across the United States that people are misinformed. They don't know who we are. We're citizens of tribal governments along with the other governments in this United States-- federal government, state government, tribal governments. We're all a part of citizens in this United States, and to deny us our culture is basically just plain shameful.

CATHY WURZER: Do you think there's any wiggle room here? Would there be any opportunity for the school board to say, well, we made a mistake? What are you hearing from any officials?

MELANIE BENJAMIN: We haven't really heard anything from this, just their decision and their vote, but there's always room to correct mistakes, and I hope that they realize that. There's been a lot of chatter and discussion and support from across this whole United States about Indian people wanting to support those students because the importance of who we are as people and for others not to recognize that or even give us the respect.

And when we think about the state of Minnesota, it's Indian country. We think about the United States. It's Indian country. Yes, there were treaties and that history that goes along with that, but every one of us live in Indian country.

CATHY WURZER: Chair Benjamin, I wish I had more time with you. Thank you so much for talking to us.

MELANIE BENJAMIN: Yes. Well, thank you. I appreciate it. Have a good day.

CATHY WURZER: You too. That was chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Melanie Benjamin.

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