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Red Lake students celebrate graduation

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RED LAKE, Minn. (AP) - There were plenty of tears in Red Lake May 28, but
for once, they were tears of joy.

Graduation ceremonies were held for 92 seniors at Red Lake High School, who
persevered through a horrific school shooting to complete the school year.

Valedictorian Vernelle Lussier said the achievement was a lifelong dream.

"This is something that I needed to finish," Lussier said from her home in
Redby, just hours before the graduation ceremony. "And I did."

It wasn't always a sure thing that the day would come.

On March 21, schoolmate Jeffrey Weise opened fire at the school, killing
seven inside the school and two outside before turning the gun on himself.
Seven others were wounded.

The tragedy brought the nation's eyes onto the Red Lake Indian Reservation,
which did not sit well with the intensely private Ojibwe community.

The people of the reservation struggled under the intense media scrutiny.
Slowly but surely, however, they are getting more positive things to talk
about.

When the school reopened, only about one-third of the students returned for
the half-day classes, most too traumatized to set foot back on the grounds.

Nevertheless, the seniors made it through.

"Graduation day is a big step for all of us," said elder Thomas Stillday.
"This day will help."

On May 28, Red Lake's largest graduating class ever took part in
commencement ceremonies at the middle school, which were closed to the
media.

Lussier gave the keynote speech, telling her fellow classmates and the
proud family and friends in attendance that while they "cannot undo what
was done," they should "look for answers, not for blame."

Tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr., whose 16-year-old son is in federal
custody in connection with the shootings, said the graduation brought some
much-needed hope to the community.

"These kids are going to go a long way," Jourdain said. "We're really proud
of our kids today."

The Red Lake High yearbook, which was to have been edited by English
teacher Neva Rogers who died in the shootings, has a two-page spread
dedicated "to our fallen Warriors" and features photos of the five
students, teacher and security guard who died.

Weise is not pictured with the other victims, but his photo is included
with the rest of the sophomore class.

As Lussier finished her speech and ceremonies wound to a close, numerous
red, black and silver balloons filled the sky.

Senior Jo Cobenais said her friend's speech was "magnificent. She spoke for
all of us."

Lussier is on her way to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence,
Kan.

"She's going to go far," her mother, Muriel Stately said. "She's going to
be one of our future leaders."

No matter how far she goes, she'll never be far away from Red Lake.

"I want to come back," Lussier said. "It might not be right away. But I'll
always come home."