Graduation at Red Cloud: Honoring the Accomplishments of the Class of 2014

posted May 24, 2014

At Red Cloud, graduation isn’t just one day of celebrating. Throughout this week, and over the course of several days, students, parents, families, teachers and staff came together to honor the accomplishments of Red Cloud’s 38 graduating seniors.

Starting with a traditional Lakota feather tying ceremony and ending with a commencement celebration, these events marked an extraordinary moment not only for this year’s graduates, but also for the entire community.

“Graduation here at Red Cloud is always an incredible time, because our graduates work so hard—and often overcome tremendous challenges—to get here and pursue their dreams,” explains Fr. George Winzenburg, Red Cloud’s president.

“Red Cloud students work against some staggering odds here on Pine Ridge, where 89 percent of Pine Ridge residents are unemployed, and only 12 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Those realities inspire them to create positive change in the world—not just for themselves but also for their families and for the Lakota people. So graduation here is really a full community celebration. It signals that, with this new generation of Lakota leaders, the future is indeed bright.”

On Thursday evening, the Red Cloud community came together for the start of graduation festivities—a Lakota ceremony during which students receive a feather that is prayed over, smudged and then tied into their hair. The feather honors their hard work and accomplishments while also signaling a major step and a responsibility to take a new leadership role among their people. Each student choose a sponsor—a person who has inspired and mentored them, including parents, grandparents and elders—to place the feather in their hair.

As the final beats of a prayer song hung in the warm, late-spring air, community elder and former Red Cloud teacher Alvin Slow Bear came to the floor and spoke to students of their accomplishments and the confidence he has in their ability to act as ambassadors for their Tribe. He then explained the spiritual significance of their feathers and plumes as Lakota teacher Vance Blacksmith smudged the group with sage. Sponsors then formed a circle around the seated seniors and once they had tied them all on, an honoring song was sung, and all in attendance came forward to shake the students’ hands.

“Culturally, [the Feather Tying Ceremony] has always been with us,” said Linn Cross Dog, director of transportation at Red Cloud, and a grandfather to one of this year’s graduates. Linn notes that the ceremony is full of history and honor, for both the graduate and the person tying the feather.

“Each feather represents an accomplishment in the person’s life—such as a graduation—and when they grow older, traditionally it would be these feathers that a person would make a war bonnet from. All of those students out there have a story of the trials and struggles they went through to get to where they are today. For the most part those stories are only truly known by their close family. And so the tying ceremony is a time for both the student and their mentor to reflect on how strong the student is and how far they’ve come.”

On Friday evening, the class of 2014, their families and the community came together to the beat of the high school’s traditional singing and drum group to celebrate with the annual baccalaureate Mass—a service honoring the importance of Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality at Red Cloud. During the service, students received a final blessing from Red Cloud’s President, Fr. George Winzenburg, other pastoral members and teachers.

During the homily, visiting former Red Cloud teacher, Deacon Christopher Johnson, SJ wished students a lifetime of success, reminding them of all the love and support they have around them. At the end of the evening, students were given medals of St. Ignatius and the community joined together for a cookout dinner.

Finally, this Saturday morning, with the warm sun shining brightly, Red Cloud’s class of 2014 walked across the stage to receive their diplomas during commencement—the last event in Red Cloud’s graduation celebration. Parents and families, along with teachers and staff, filled the fieldhouse to cheer on this year’s graduates. After the conferring of scholarships, valedictorian Savannah Jensen addressed the audience with a heartfelt traditional introduction in the Lakȟóta language—a skill she was honored for earlier in the ceremony—before going on to eloquently encourage her classmates with a powerful anecdote about her mother’s fortitude and perseverance in pursuing education.

She asked her friends to “always make the best of what they have” and to strive for excellence in all they do, whether in art, business, sports or whatever lies down their individual paths. With a roar of applause, Superintendent Ted Hamilton conferred the degrees upon the students with the help of Principal Robin Johnson and Fr. George Winzenburg.

“This is a great day. Graduation is a great day,” said Ted Hamilton. “What is really exciting is that the vast majority of the graduates are going to go out into the world, to the military and to secondary education. And while we are going to miss them, what really makes me feel good is that after they go out there, many of them are going to come back and help build a better community right here on Pine Ridge.”

Following the ceremony, the entire community lined up outside the school to shake each of the new graduates’ hand in an honoring line, saying their goodbyes and giving encouragement before leaving for home to celebrate with their families.


Senior Profiles

VIDEO: A Lakota Graduation

How the Class of 2014 Supports Each Other

Graduation Photos!



Photos: All Rights Reserved ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2014