It was towards the end of the school day, and in a classroom with the flag of a tribal nation hanging in the corner, the drums were beating – a group of nine fifth graders and teacher Thomas Draskovic .
Darwin Villeda, 10, had his eyes on three children sitting across from him, sensing his moment, and he took it. He lifted his staff higher and sent it crashing down, helping to propel the song to a close while chanting the Lakota lyrics.
Spanish at home, Villeda was later asked if he understood the words. He replied, “I’ve been drumming since freshman grade. I know all the songs.”
And the classmates sitting across from him – they were Hmong.
When students from the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul march to Indian Mounds Park for an Indigenous Peoples Day celebration on Monday, the majority will be non-Indigenous. Draskovic, a registered member of the Standing Rock Nation, knows and values the diversity of his students, as evidenced by the name he gave to the drumming group: Many Nations of People.
“I think it’s very rewarding and rewarding to be able to work with such diverse groups of students because it helps you understand that there are many similarities between minorities of color, immigrant populations, and Native Americans,” did he declare. “It’s a valuable part of building a truly inclusive community.”
Now in his 20th year at East Side School, Draskovic teaches Lakota language and culture, and spares no detail. He spoke on a recent morning about the brutality of Indian boarding schools, potentially heavy stuff for third-year students who use a team name derived from the cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants”.
But the atmosphere in her class is loud and light.
“I love Mr. D’s class,” said Natalie Dickerson, 8, who is black, wears her hair in locs and prefers pink and salmon colored clothes. “The best thing about it is that I can tell my mom everything when I’m done. I’m learning so much.”
As for her Lakota language skills, she describes them as “average”. Then Draskovic told the kids to get their iPads out, and soon Natalie was back at work.
American Indian Magnet serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and in the 2021-22 school year, 9.7% of them were Indigenous under federal rules. The figure rises to 30% under the state’s definition, which includes children who tick the boxes as American Indian plus another race.
Asian students make up the school’s largest demographic by the federal standard, at 31.7 percent, followed by those who identify as Hispanic or Latino, at 20.2 percent.
John Bobolink, supervisor of the district’s American Indian education program, said Native families tend to move a lot.
“We can lose 300 Native American students in a year and gain 300 new ones,” he said.
The neighborhood has a lot at stake at American Indian Magnet.
In 2020, the school board acted on the wishes of parents and staff by approving a $55.3 million building renovation. The five-year project is now in its third year, and as work continues, new classrooms and hallways are being opened.
The situation is so fluid that on the first day of school in September, when Draskovic roamed the halls as he does at the start of each day burning sage and cedar — a practice known as smudging — he has to at one point lost track of where he was.
Helping her that day was an Asian fourth-grade student.
Endowed with a name
Last Wednesday, Draskovic taught his third-grade students how to introduce themselves to Lakota, and while he was working on a whiteboard fill-in exercise, a Hmong girl seated at a front table filled in the answers long before he finished.
Draskovic, whose father was Croatian and German, is a man of many talents. In addition to teaching, he served as musical director for an opera biopic that will screen this month at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center in St. Paul.
He’s also the guitarist and lead singer of the punk band Pretendians, an Aboriginal band that playfully states that despite their name, “they don’t pretend to anything.” The members represent the Standing Rock, Rosebud, and Creek Tribes, and make a point of incorporating Native-centric messages into their lyrics.
Draskovic’s life as an educator was inspired by a mother who went from living in a one-room log cabin to earning a master’s degree, overcoming systemic racism in the process, he said. he says, as well as by a high school teacher who he says respected and cared for him — reversing an experience that had left him feeling like he and other Indigenous students were looked down upon.
“I want to build a space where every child feels welcomed, respected, heard and genuinely welcome to be who they are and ready to share and learn from others,” he said.
His grandmother gave him the native name Brave Hawk. He also has a Hmong name.
Draskovic said a group of Hmong students who liked his class gave him a name meaning “The Light”. He asked two Hmong colleagues about it and they said it was a good name, a mark of respect for an elder and also a boy given to the firstborn in a family.
The students then taught Draskovic how to introduce themselves in Hmong.
He was happy to say that most can relate to it.