Duluth school district honors American Indian graduates

A banquet held Wednesday recognized the Indigenous students set to graduate next month.

American Indian graduates recognized
Binesiikwe Edye Washington, left, the Duluth Public Schools’ American Indian education coordinator, awards Arianna Gault her graduation sash during a celebration for American Indian graduates at Clyde Iron Works on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — They’re not set to cross the stage for another three weeks, but a handful of American Indian students on the verge of graduating from Duluth Public Schools were honored Wednesday.

The school district’s annual graduation banquet in West Duluth recognized Indigenous students who are set to earn their high school diploma in June. Fourteen of those students were given a certificate and stole to wear during their commencement ceremonies.

“I want you to recognize from a very young age — and right now, if you’re graduating — that your voices and your opinions matter, and that you can make a difference,” Rachel Evangelisto , a member of Standing Rock Nation and the first Indigenous winner of the annual Miss Minnesota pageant, told the assembled soon-to-be graduates at Clyde Iron Works. “There are little people right in this room that are watching you and your next steps.”

American Indian graduates recognized
Rachel Evangelisto, the first indigenous Ms. Minnesota, speaks during a celebration for American Indian graduates Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A graduate of the University of Minnesota Morris, Evangelisto is set to pursue a law degree at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. She recalled feeling ashamed of her Indigenous heritage from a young age before finding a zeal for it in college, even after the indignity of a passing motorist in Morris shouted for her to go back to her reservation before throwing a cup of chewing tobacco spit onto Evangelisto and her first handmade ribbon skirt.

“If you do find yourselves in situations and facing those stereotypes, facing those lenses, right? Just shatter them,” she said. “Walk away from those people that are trying to diminish you. They have no role in your life. And if you’re not going to college, I hope you continue to acknowledge that learning isn’t just done in the classroom. Learning is done in life.”


American Indian graduates recognized
Rachel Evangelisto, the first indigenous Ms. Minnesota, watches as students receive sashes and awards.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In all, about 30 American Indian students are set to graduate from the school district next month. Each was invited to Wednesday’s gala.

One honoree was Arianna Gault, 17, a Denfeld High School student who said she plans to attend Lake Superior College next school year to pursue a career in social work. A member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Gault said she used to feel kind of insecure about being Native.

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“This is one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said following his appointment. “My family has prospered because of this system, but we can’t rest until every family can say that.”

“I know it sounds silly,” Gault said, “but it feels comfortable to have a bunch of people here, that are my friends, too, that are just like me.”

Also honored Wednesday was Ryan Kirsch, 18, who plans to be a heavy machine operator in August after he graduates from Denfeld and undergoes training in Hinckley, Minnesota. He’s got a job lined up already, and said he could end up working on the Twin Ports Interchange project in Duluth.

American Indian graduates recognized
Binesiikwe Edye Washington, left, Duluth Public Schools’ American Indian education coordinator, awards Ryan Kirsch his sash.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The work appealed to Kirsch, he said, because it doesn’t call for more schooling. The pay, he conceded, is also part of the appeal. “And, it just looked fun,” Kirsch told the News Tribune.

Wednesday’s ceremony, he said, gives him a chance to wear something unique at graduation.

“I feel I actually get to represent something,” he said. “Rather than just walking out and representing the class of ‘23, I get to represent Native heritage, stuff like that.”

The stoles have a strawberry stitched onto them that sits approximately over the wearer’s heart. It’s an ode’imin — a “heart berry” — according to Binesiikwe, the American Indian education coordinator at Duluth Public Schools who’s a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.


“We hand it off to our students in hopes that, after graduation, they enter their adult lives leading with their hearts, being kind, and being the best that they can as quote-unquote adults,” she said.

The school district’s Academic Excellence Online program and its Area Learning Center are set to host graduation ceremonies on Tuesday, June 6.

Denfeld is set to hold a ceremony of its own on Wednesday, June 7, and East High School is set to do the same on Thursday, June 8.

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This story originally mischaracterized the type of garment Rachel Evangelisto said she made for herself. It was updated at 9:01 a.m. on May 19. Evangelisto made a ribbon skirt, not a jingle dress. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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