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    School sparks protest by stopping tribal drum performance at graduation

    By Tommy Wiita,

    2024-05-18

    The Hinckley-Finlayson School Board has blocked a tribal drum group from performing at its upcoming high school graduation ceremony, causing students to walk out of class in protest.

    The board voted unanimously on Monday to not allow the Native American Student Association and its drum group to sing the Ojibwe Traveling Song at graduation.

    Hinckley-Finlayson Superintendent Brian Masterson said at the meeting the decision was due to a supposed "legal risk" if community members think it endorses a religious group.

    The district also said it's limiting performances from "extracurricular groups" including the drum group so the focus at graduation ceremonies is on the students rather than groups.

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    In response, students at Hinckley-Finlayson High School walked out of classes on Wednesday in protest. Students told Northern News Now they will continue to hold walkouts until they are heard from district leaders.

    Graduation is scheduled for May 24.

    The AFSCME Council 5 condemned the ban by the school district, saying the claim of the group being "extracurricular" is "a blatant dismissal of the rich cultural heritage and the vital presence of American Indian communities."

    "This decision seeks to erase the history and traditions that should be celebrated and respected by all. We are in solidarity with students and community members and join together to demand a reversal of this decision," the union said in a statement.

    Speaking to MPR News, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive Melanie Benjamin said numerous schools and colleges across Minnesota allow Native American drum songs at graduation, saying the song in question is secular, and is intended "to wish people a good and safe journey in life."

    The school board claimed the performance held at last year's graduation was "disruptive," as many moved closer to watch the performances.

    "The district's goal at graduation time is to make all district seniors, and the families and community members who have supported them during their educational career, feel celebrated at graduation," a statement from the district says, adding they want “to avoid disruption to the ceremony with people potentially leaving the ceremony during these presentations or with people potentially coming down to the gymnasium floor to get a better view.”

    In addition to the group being able to perform last year, they also performed again at a powwow at the high school in April.

    According to the U.S. News & World Report , the Hinckley-Finlayson School District is comprised of 67.9% white students and 15.2% American Indian or Alaska Native.

    A petition calling for the school district to reverse the board's decision has gathered nearly 3,000 of its 5,000 signatures needed as of Friday.

    You can watch the school board meeting held below, via the school district's YouTube.

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