Spilled Blood, Spilled Ink

What happens when a big-city newspaper opens a small town's wounds?

In late November 2002, Larry Oakes, a longtime reporter for the Star Tribune, returned to his boyhood home in the northern Minnesota village of Cass Lake. The occasion for his homecoming was not a happy one. Oakes had been assigned to cover one of the more appalling crimes in the state's recent history, the bludgeoning death of a legally blind, 48-year-old albino man named Louie Bisson on a downtown Cass Lake street.

While the police had arrested four teenage boys in connection with the killing--all enrolled members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe--no one seemed to know why they committed the crime. Yes, they were troubled kids; yes, they were drunk and high on drugs. Yet that didn't strike Oakes as a complete or satisfying explanation. After all, a lot of kids get drunk and stoned. Very few commit murder without provocation.

After an early round of reporting, Oakes realized that he had something more on his hands than a run-of-the-mill crime story. The Bisson murder, he discovered, was just the latest in a disturbing string of crimes and premature deaths involving youth from the Leech Lake Reservation. In less than half a year, there had been four homicides involving reservation youth as either perpetrators or victims. With a population of 860 people, Cass Lake seemed to be at the epicenter of much of the violence.

You can go home again: Strib reporter Larry Oakes
Mike Mosedale
You can go home again: Strib reporter Larry Oakes

Originally a lumber and railroad town, Cass Lake has long had a reputation as a tough place. In the 1930s, Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior under FDR, reputedly declared the community one of the two "darkest" spots in the nation. As a white student at Cass Lake High School in the 1970s, Oakes remembered episodes of violence; he was aware of acute social problems that some of his Indian classmates lived with. But it seemed clear to Oakes that there had been a fundamental change. The violence now was more nihilistic, more excessive. "The fights we had back then ended when someone quit or was on the ground," Oakes recalls. "There was a basic taboo against taking life that everyone seemed to recognize."

So Oakes wrote up a proposal to his editors for a long-term project in which he would examine the causes of the reservation's youth crisis. After getting the green light, he and Strib photographer Jerry Holt rented a house outside of town and immersed themselves in the community for six months. The end result: a 20,000-word, three-day series that provided an unflinching and intimate look at the Leech Lake Reservation.

Concluding that the reservation had become "among the worst places in Minnesota to grow up," Oakes chronicled several of the more notorious crimes in excruciating detail. The harrowing opening installment of the series focused on a 14-year-old Cass Lake boy who murdered his father and then attempted to kill his girlfriend's foster parents. In a jailhouse interview, the boy related how he rehearsed by beating a dog to death with a baseball bat. The sound of the bat cracking the dog's skull, he told Oakes, resembled the sound of a person biting down a cracker. At that moment, Oakes knew he was "going further outside the envelope than I'd ever gone before."

In the course of his research, Oakes hung out with other troubled teens from the town's notorious housing project, a place called Tract 33. He also examined what he thought were some of the root causes of the problems on the reservation: loss of land and culture, widespread use of alcohol and drugs by children, endemic poverty, and a rise in single-parent families.

Published in late April, "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake" was the sort of journalistic enterprise that wins newspapers awards, and a crowning moment in Oakes's career as a reporter. In the Cass Lake area, the response to the series was passionate and intense. Over 6,000 reprints of the series were distributed, and scads of past and present Cass Lake residents were inspired to write letters to the Strib and the local newspaper, the Cass Lake Times.

Some of it was predictable. A local realtor complained that the Strib had exaggerated the reservation's problems--and, in typical realtor form, fretted that the series might depress the burgeoning lake-country area property market. Several students at Cass Lake High School chastised the Strib for not emphasizing their stories of success. American Indian Movement founder (and Leech Lake member) Dennis Banks organized an event called the "We Are Not All on Drugs Walk"; the aim was to provide some contrast to the bleak picture that emerged from the series.

Meanwhile, several tribal leaders responded by saying that the problems depicted in the stories represented the generic problems of contemporary American youth. You could find similar violence in Minneapolis or on other reservations, they said, why pick on Cass Lake? Within a matter of weeks, the tribal government announced that it would host a special, two-day forum in the bingo hall in the local casino, the Palace.

Fliers distributed all over Cass Lake declared "We are not LOST" and promised to counter "the perceptions" raised by the articles. Oakes, who had already received more than 200 e-mails in response to his stories, was concerned. "When I first heard the title of the event, I was disappointed," he says now. "It sounded like it was going to be a public relations thing. It was like they were saying, 'We have a branding problem,' not 'We have a youth problem.'"

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