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Tassels, tears at Red Lake

RED LAKE, Minn. -- There were plenty of tears in Red Lake on Saturday, 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 get their diplomas.

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.

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On March 21, schoolmate Jeffrey Weise opened fire on the school, killing seven inside the school and two more outside it 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.

On Saturday, 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 Saturday's event brought some much-needed hope to the community.

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"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."

It was a festive weekend for a community that sorely needed one. A local bakery made about 60 cakes for separate grad parties, and tribal elders forecast a bright future for the young ones.

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."

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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."

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