Same Country, Different Nation

The Real Red Lake

On March 21, after 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people on the Red Lake Indian Reservation and then committed suicide, the local and national media wasted no time delving into the pathos. The story arc conformed to a now-familiar pattern. The initial round of coverage was devoted mainly to eyewitness accounts and what mordant German media folk call widow-shaking. Then the attention shifted to the matter of paramount importance: developing a profile of the killer.

While the early stories screamed "Why?," they might just as well have read "Why not?" There was no shortage of explanations for why and how Weise became so unraveled. To begin with, there were the heartbreaking elements of his biography. His father committed suicide in a standoff with police during which his grandfather--later, Weise's first victim--unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a surrender. There was neglect and abuse. Then his mother suffered serious brain damage in a car accident, causing the boy to be uprooted from his Twin Cities home and sent to Red Lake to live with relatives.

Suicidal, medicated, and alienated, Weise evidently spent much of his time in cyberspace, where he all but announced his intentions to the world. In one online profile, he listed his hobbies as "Planning, Waiting, Hating" and then tacked on an eloquent and prescient self-assessment: "16 years of accumulated rage suppressed by nothing more than brief glimpses of hope, which have all but faded to black." (Writing under the moniker NativeNazi, Weise also expressed admiration for Hitler and ruminated extensively on the importance of racial purity. Many expressed shock that a Native kid would gravitate to such ideology, but that is a little less bizarre than it appears; after all, racial purity--in the form of blood-quantum measurements--determines eligibility for tribal enrollment and therefore is a central element of identity). Among his peers, Weise's dark enthusiasms were no secret. Within a week of the shootings came accounts from classmates and friends concerning Weise's obsession with violence and talk of shooting up the school.

Biographical nuggets like these shaped the public understanding of the events of March 21. By the time The National Enquirer and A Current Affair weighed in on the story, Weise's personal pathologies were really all anyone talked about. It helped that he left behind neat, media-friendly artifacts: "Target Practice," the disturbing flash animation video he created, which depicts a hooded killer shooting people in the head before eating his gun; "Surviving the Dead," a macabre short story he posted about a school massacre; and the now-infamous yearbook portrait in which the blank-faced teen wears his hair sculpted into devil's horns. Such exhibits were irresistible, especially to the tabloid media.

But some reporters also focused considerable attention on the place where the shootings occurred. The Red Lake reservation is among the most isolated and violent corners of Minnesota, a place that is in many regards unlike any other in the state. For evidence, reporters needed to look no further than mountains of studies compiled over the years about Red Lake youth and their endemic problems with poverty, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse.

For those who follow Indian country, such dismal litanies are familiar. The real difference in the case of Red Lake was a question of scale. Weise did not merely kill himself or a single peer. That would not have been exceptional at Red Lake; most likely it would not have even made the news outside of northern Minnesota. But Weise engaged in a particular type of violence that has long been the near-exclusive province of suburban and rural white boys. What was the public to conclude? The suggestion of some stories--never directly stated--was that the horror visited on Red Lake was a consequence of the reservation's social ills. Yet such a conclusion contradicted the competing and dominant strain of the coverage--the contention that school shootings are bolts of lightning. You can't predict when or where they will strike. For affected communities, such a view offers a measure of comfort. It doesn't assign blame, not on schools, parents, political leaders or, most significantly, not on the wounded community itself.

"The reservation had nothing to do with it. It had to do with an individual with access to guns who had a problem," Beltrami County Commissioner and Red Lake band member Quentin Fairbanks told the Los Angeles Times. The second part of Fairbanks's assertion is indisputable. Weise had a problem--lots of them, actually--and he had access to guns.

But did the shootings really have "nothing to do with" the reservation? Weise's own mental illness; a history of abuse, bullying, and dislocation; and his taste for the more toxic corners of mass culture likely all played a role. Yet on a fundamental level, Weise's acts were simply an expression of profound nihilism. And it is a sad fact that Red Lake, like other reservations in Minnesota, has become a breeding ground for such feelings. At least, that was how Weise saw it. "I'm living every man's nightmare," he wrote in an online post in January. "This place never changes, it never will."

 

In the wake of the shootings, a certain shorthand has evolved in the description of Red Lake. The reservation, readers learn through the power of repetition, is "tight-knit." If you run that phrase through a Google search coupled with "Red Lake," you'll come up with over 200 hits. In the official proclamation issued in the wake of the shootings, Gov. Tim Pawlenty employed the phrase. U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger used it, too, along with the Star Tribune, the Associated Press, the Pioneer Press, CBS News, Indian Country Today, and virtually every media outlet that parachuted in. But, aside from conveying cultural sensitivity, what does that term really mean, and does it speak to a fundamental truth about Red Lake?

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