Students Will Raymond, left, and Natane Tom, right, present outgoing ISD 834 Superintendent Denise Pontrelli, middle, with a blanket in a honoring ceremony June 22. (Photo by Alicia Lebens)

Students, staff and elders of the Stillwater Area Native American Parent Advisory Committee (NAPAC) gathered June 22 to honor outgoing Superintendent Denise Pontrelli with a traditional ceremony. Pontrelli received a Pendleton blanket blessed with ceremonial incense and the well wishes of the group as she transitions to a new chapter in her career.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, I am so moved” Pontrelli said. “I feel it has been me that has been learning by coming to the NAPAC events.”

Pontrelli reached an agreement with the Stillwater Area School Board June 11 to end her tenure as the district’s top administrator. Her last day will be June 30.

NAPAC was started with a grant from the state of Minnesota during the 2015-2016 school year — the first year Pontrelli worked in the district as superintendent. During that time, Denise Stephens said that Pontrelli has supported the work that the committee has done to teach Native American culture to students throughout the district and support the over 60 indigenous students taught in the district’s schools. Stephens is one of the organizers of the committee.

“While we do advocate for the education of the Native American students that attend Stillwater Area school, we do so much more by bring Native elders into the classrooms across the district,” Stephens said. “When teachers ask, we come in and bring elders to share their history and culture.”

Stephens said that Pontrelli has been supportive of including Native American history and culture in curriculum. For example, at Stillwater Area High School the astronomy class learns the Native American star stories.

The ceremony was led by led by Afton resident Reid Raymond and his son, Will. Will is a member of Native American Student Alliance, a club that was formed at the high school this year.

Raymond explained to the group gathered that he was approached by his son to offer the honoring ceremony to Pontrelli. In their family traditions, the father leads the prayers and Will needed to ask in a specific way to allow for their heirlooms to leave their home for the ceremony.

“I was very impressed that there was someone who made such an impact in his life,” Raymond said.

Using sage, sweetgrass and cedar to perfume the smoke from the coals, Raymond held a handful of ceremonial tobacco in his hand as he prayed facing west. His words in both Lakota and English asked for protection and guidance before burning the tobacco in the coals, its smoke lifting the prayer to the sky. Pontrelli was then wrapped in a Pendleton blanket by Will and fellow student Natane Tom.

Pontrelli said she is grateful for the work that NAPAC does in the community.

“With everything that goes on in the world around our students, school should be a place that is like the eye of the storm - a place of calm,” Pontrelli said. “NAPAC provides a place of our Native American students to feel connected.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at

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