Native News

Native students at Hinckley-Finlayson High School to host powwow after graduation

People in a school gym
High school graduating senior Kaiya Wilson addresses the Hinckley-Finlayson school board on May 13, asking the board to allow a Native drum group to perform at the school's graduation ceremony.
Courtesy of Kaiya Wilson

After their request to have a tribal drum group perform at the Hinckley-Finlayson High School’s graduation was denied by the district’s school board, a group of Native American students and supporters now plans to host a powwow in the school parking lot after Friday’s ceremony.

Earlier this month the school board rejected a petition from the school’s Native American student group to have a drum group perform an Ojibwe traveling song during graduation, something that had been allowed in last year’s ceremony.

School administration cited possible legal risk for the perception of favoring a particular religion and a desire to focus on graduates, and not “extracurricular groups,” during the ceremony.

That decision prompted outcry from students, teachers and the broader Native community in the region. In the days since the May 13 decision, students have staged walkouts during the last ten minutes of school to protest the decision. Parents and leaders of the nearby Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have met with school and community officials.

Organizers expect more than 500 people to attend the powwow, scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. Friday, after the graduation ceremony concludes.

“We do have a lot of people around Native Country that are coming from great distances to show up,” said Tim Taggart, a graduate of Hinckley-Finlayson with family in the district who’s helping to organize the event.

An orange poster
A poster promotes a powwow after graduation at Hinckley-Finlayson High School. The event was organized after the district's school board denied a request for a Native drum group to perform a song during the graduation ceremony.
Tim Taggart

Instead of starting with a traditional Grand Entry, in which all dancers enter at one time to kick off the powwow, Taggert said it will start with a “Grad Entry,” in which all graduates, Native and non-Native, are welcome to join with their families.

“And we’ll honor them that way, we'll circle up just like you would a normal powwow,” Taggart said. “We want … to put all of this behind us. All of us to pull together. That’s the main focus of it.”

Taggart and others say the school board’s decision reflects a broader lack of understanding about the boarding school era and other historical trauma that Native people face and the importance of seeing their culture reflected in major events such as graduation.

Native American people make up about one percent of the state’s population, but Native Americans make up about one quarter of the Hinckley-Finlayson student body, according to the most recent state data.

Twenty-one Native students are graduating this year, including Kaiya Wilson, an officer with the high school’s Native American Student Association who spoke at the school board meeting where the request to allow the song was denied.

She said she’s happy and excited that the powwow is taking place, and that the school has set aside a parking lot for the event.

“But you also have to think about why we’re doing this in the first place and why things are like this,” said Wilson, who’s attending the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities in the fall.

“It’s because of their initial decision. And that’s still saddening that we have to move around and jump corners and things in order to do what should have just been done easily in the first place.”

Niiyo Gonzalez, a parent of students at Hinckley-Finlayson High School and the commissioner of education for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said she admires the approach that Wilson and other students have taken.

“They have really taught me a lot about how to respond with a really peaceful, loving, inclusive approach that I think all of us as adults could learn from,” Gonzalez said.

School superintendent Brian Masterson did not respond to requests for an interview. In an earlier statement, he said “the district is committed to work with the drum group to identify an alternate forum for the group to perform, and for their families and interested community members to attend and support them.”

Gonzalez acknowledged the district’s support of the powwow, but feels like school officials got what they wanted in the first place by not having students sing in the graduation ceremony.

“I would just say that none of this is over. I would stay tuned,” said Gonzalez. “This ugly incident has really shown us how important Indigenous education for all is in the state. And that school boards, superintendents, people in our communities, really need to learn more about who we are as a people.”

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