RED LAKE -- Honking cars replaced the usually anticipated sound of applause during Red Lake Nation College’s first ever drive-in commencement ceremony on the evening of May 21.

Graduates and families remained in their car and listened to commencement speakers who spoke from a stage in front of the recognizable RLNC eagle building. The event’s audio was broadcast over the radio, which could be listened to from inside vehicles, just like a drive-in movie. Each graduate approached the stage individually to receive their diplomas.

Typical drive-in movie snacks were handed out to attendees by mask-wearing volunteers. Families sat in the back of pickup trucks, cheering and honking their horns. Over 4,000 others watched the graduation livestream from home.

A family waits for the start of the Red Lake Nation College graduation ceremony on Thursday evening in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
A family waits for the start of the Red Lake Nation College graduation ceremony on Thursday evening in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. addressed the graduates with a message of pride and congratulations.

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“Red Lake Nation College students I am honored and very humbled to be with you all this evening for your major accomplishment,” he said. “We’re all proud of you. All the people who are here behind me, are all proud of you for what you have done.”

RLNC President Dan King spoke about how everyone will encounter 'fight or flight' moments in their lives -- instances where they must make a decision in the face of risk or danger.

Red Lake Nation College President Dan King speaks during the graduation ceremony on Thursday in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Red Lake Nation College President Dan King speaks during the graduation ceremony on Thursday in Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“What do you do when you come across that moment? Are you going to stand there and fight or are you going to run away? We prepare our students for this all the time, but never in our imagination did we figure there would be a term like this, a transformational change to our whole lives through this pandemic. But in spite of that, our students fought and they made it through,” he said. “We have 12 amazing success stories tonight.”

Of the 12 members of the RLNC graduating class honored on Thursday, all but one were women.

Officials mentioned throughout the evening the number of “wonder women” among the ranks of graduates— students who worked full-time jobs, were full-time students and full-time mothers.

Zane Tyrisah Smith, who received the President’s Leadership Award, gave a moving speech about her battle with suicidal thoughts and journey toward loving herself. She spoke about how she found her place at Red Lake Nation College and came to better understand the Ojibwe value of love.

“Once I started learning my language, my history and my culture, I started to change. With every new Ojibwe word I spoke I became prideful. The more Anishinaabe history I learned, I gained confidence. My education at RLNC has taught me one of the most important things in life, and that is to love myself for who I am,” she said. “And in case you haven’t heard it today, gi-zaagi`in, I love you.”

While it was a joyous event, thoughts of the coronavirus hung in the air. The first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Red Lake Nation earlier in the week. Face masks with the RLNC logo were donned by many.

“There’s the coronavirus surrounding us, it has arrived here, so we have to take care of each other,” Chairman Seki said during his address to the graduates. “We are all in this together, we can be victorious together.”

A full livestream video of the commencement can be found on RLNC’s Facebook page.