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More than 40 high school students walked out of class in central Minnesota last Wednesday in response to their school board denying a tribal drum group the right to perform at their upcoming graduation ceremony. 

In response to a Hinckley-Finlayson High School student drum group’s request for the second year in a row to perform a traditional Honor Song at their May 24 graduation, the school board voted on Monday, May 13, “to limit presentation and performances by extracurricular student groups,” according to a statement provided to Native News Online by District Superintendent Brian Masterson. 

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“The School District’s attorney has advised me that allowing extracurricular groups to put on spiritual or religious performances during graduation creates legal risk if members of the community feel the District is endorsing a religious group as part of the graduation ceremony,” Masterson said at the school board meeting. “The District needs to avoid the perception that it is endorsing any religion as part of graduation, as courts have found that violates the Establishment Clause.”

Now, Native students—who make up about a quarter of the student body—and local tribal leaders, are pushing back against the board’s assertion that their culture is a religion. 

“The tradition of playing tribal drums at graduation pays tribute to students and provides them with a sense of accomplishment and honor within their home community,” Melanie Benjamin, executive director of the nearby Mille Lacs Band, said in a recorded response to the board’s decision. “We thought we had reached the point where we didn’t have to fight these battles. I guess we were wrong.”

She added that 21 Native students will be graduating at The Hinckley-Finlayson High School’s May 25 ceremony, and that drum circles are a traditional way of celebrating such an accomplishment in Native communities, for both Native students and non-Native students alike. She added that the University of Minnesota, Morris, recently had a graduation ceremony where the university allowed a drum group performance. 

Benjamin said that Native American community members are not taking the school board’s decision lightly, and that she’s reached out to the school board, the state’s Attorney General’s office, to the Governor’s Office, and to Minnesota Senator Tina Smith’s office for help educating the school board on it’s “shameful” decision.  

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.