It was near the end of the school day, and in a classroom with a tribal nation's flag hanging in a corner, the drummers were pounding — a group of nine fifth-graders and teacher Thomas Draskovic.

Darwin Villeda, 10, had his eyes locked on three kids seated across from him, sensing his moment, and he took it. He raised his stick higher and sent it crashing down, helping propel the song to its finish while singing the Lakota lyrics.

A Spanish speaker at home, Darwin was asked later if he understood the words. He replied: "I've been drumming since first grade. I know all the songs."

And the classmates seated across from him — they were Hmong.

When students at American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul marched to Indian Mounds Park for an Indigenous Peoples Day celebration Monday, the majority were non-Native. Draskovic, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Nation, knows and values the diversity of his students, evident in the name he gave the drum group: Many Nations of People.

"I believe that it is very enriching and rewarding being able to work with such diverse groups of students because it helps you understand there are many similarities amongst minority people of color, immigrant populations and Indigenous American people," he said. "It is a valuable part of building a truly inclusive community."

Now in his 20th year at the East Side school, Draskovic teaches Lakota language and culture, and spares no details. He referred on a recent morning to the brutality of Indian boarding schools, potentially heavy stuff for third-graders who use a team name — Krusty Krabs — derived from the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants."

But the atmosphere in his classroom is boisterous and light.

"I love Mr. D's class," said Natalie Dickerson, 8, a Black student who wears her hair in locs and favors pink- and salmon-colored clothing. "The best thing about this is I can tell my mom all about it when I'm done. I learn so much."

As for her Lakota language skills, she describes them as "so-so." Then, Draskovic told the kids to get out their iPads, and soon Natalie was back at work.

Transient population

American Indian Magnet serves students in grades kindergarten through eight, and in the 2021-22 school year, 9.7 % of them were Native according to federal rules. The figure rises to 30% under the state's definition, which includes kids who check boxes as American Indian plus another race.

Asian students comprise the school's largest demographic by the federal standard, at 31.7%, followed by those identifying as Hispanic or Latino at 20.2 %.

John Bobolink, supervisor of the district's American Indian Education Program, said Native families tend to move a lot.

"We may lose 300 American Indian students in a year, and gain 300 new ones," he said.

The district has a lot at stake at American Indian Magnet.

In 2020, the school board acted on the desires of parents and staff members by approving a $55.3 million building renovation. The five-year project is now in its third year, and as the 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 walked the halls as he does at the start of every day burning sage and cedar — a practice known as smudging — he at one point lost track of where he was.

Assisting him that day was an Asian fourth-grader.

In Draskovic's view, which he shares with his drum group, the circle is "the most powerful shape in the universe" for it has no beginning or end, and by bringing together students from different cultures, backgrounds and countries, it only gets stronger.

"That is why I like to invite all kids to my drum," he said.

Gifted a name

Last Wednesday, Draskovic taught his third-graders how to introduce themselves in Lakota, and as he worked through a fill-in-the-blank exercise on a whiteboard, a Hmong girl seated at a front table completed the answers long before he was done.

Draskovic, whose father was Croatian and German, is a man of many talents. In addition to teaching, he has served as music director of an opera biopic that will be screened this month at Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center in St. Paul.

He also is a guitarist and lead vocalist for punk-infused band Pretendians, a Native group that playfully states that despite the name, "they're not pretending anything." Members represent the Standing Rock, Rosebud and Crow Creek tribes, and make a point to bring Indigenous-centric messaging 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 attaining a master's degree, overcoming systemic racism in the process, he said, as well as by a high school teacher who he said respected and cared for him — turning around an experience that had made him feel as if he and other Native students were being 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 has a Hmong name, too.

Draskovic said a group of Hmong students who enjoyed his class gifted him a name meaning, "The Light." He asked two Hmong coworkers about it and they said it was a good name, a show of respect for an elder and also one given to the first-born boy in a family.

The students then taught Draskovic how to introduce himself in Hmong.

He was happy to say most can understand him.