Same Country, Different Nation

The Real Red Lake

Bill Lawrence, who is Jourdain's godson and the publisher of the muckraking newspaper, the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, thinks that the gap between the idealistic rhetoric and day-to-day reality has contributed to the crisis among young people. In a column written after the school shootings, Lawrence assessed the situation frankly, and a little heretically:


These kids have been told, and no doubt revere, the stories of the old traditions. Yet the things they see in their communities conflict with the traditional values they've been told about. They see corruption, abuse of power, mismanagement, nepotism, etc. They see their elders remain silent in spite of what goes on out of fear of retaliation... In school children learn about the democratic process, civil rights protections and things like due process. In their communities these principles are violated on a daily basis. Victims have little recourse through the justice system because the tribal courts are nothing short of minions of tribal government.


Lawrence thought the media coverage of Red Lake after the shootings was freighted with "noble savage clichés" about the pervasive unity, selflessness, and spirituality of the community. If those values remained as deeply engrained as depicted, he contends, Red Lake would be a much different and more peaceable place. Peaceable it definitely is not. Over the last five years, the U.S. attorney has prosecuted a dozen murder charges and seven manslaughter cases at Red Lake. In the Red Lake tribal court, where less serious crimes are prosecuted, there were over 3,500 cases filed in 2004 alone.

In Lawrence's view, the increase in crime on the reservation has been driven chiefly by a burgeoning drug trade and the associated emergence of native gangs such as the Red Nation Clique and the Back of the Town Mob. He acknowledges that it's only a partial explanation, and points likewise to the advent of casino gambling. While gaming has proved an economic boon on smaller reservations--especially those located closer to the large population centers--Lawrence believes gambling has been a problematic proposition for Red Lake. It isn't just that the casino jobs pay poorly, though they do.

"Right now, gambling is the hub of the social life on the reservation. People aren't putting in gardens anymore, and I don't think Red Lake has fielded a baseball team in years," he offers. "A lot of kids think they don't need to go to school because they can work at the casino or because they think they'll strike it rich. It takes a pretty strong person to keep a family together on the reservation. Look at this Weise kid. He was living with his grandmother, and that's probably more the rule than the exception on the reservation these days."

In the month since the shooting, Red Lake tribal leaders have traveled as far as Washington, D.C., to make the case for more financial assistance. Lawrence doubts that money is the solution to the reservation's troubles. "They get $50 to $60 million in federal subsidies every year. They spend more money per pupil than any school district in the state. And yet things just get worse," he says.

Some of Red Lake's spike in crime is driven by demographics. In recent years, the reservation population has swelled, as band members who moved away have begun to return. The reasons are myriad: Off-reservation jobs fizzle. Welfare benefits are exhausted. People miss their families. People miss the land. Whatever the reasons, the influx--especially of younger people--has fundamentally altered the reservation. Between 1990 and 2000, the population jumped by a staggering 40 percent, leading to acute housing shortages and overcrowding. Nowadays, nearly half of the people living at Red Lake are 18 or younger, and less than 5 percent are over 65. So while traditional values may call for a reverence toward elders, the culture skews very young.

According to the Northwest Area Foundation, about 40 percent of Red Lake residents live at or below federal poverty level. In real terms, per capita income at Red Lake (estimated at $8,372 in 1999) is the lowest of any Minnesota reservation. Adjusted for inflation, personal income on the reservation has actually dropped by nearly $2,000 over the past two decades. Other numbers tell the story too: A full 33 percent of Red Lake teens aged between 16 and 19 were neither enrolled in school, employed, or looking for work in the year 2000. Depression, meanwhile, is epidemic among youth. In one 2004 survey of ninth-grade girls at Red Lake High School, 81 percent said they had contemplated suicide. Nearly half said they had attempted it.

Over the past 50 years, Red Lake has changed as dramatically as any place in Minnesota. Middle-aged residents of the reservation may have grown up without electricity or running water, some in log homes and others in tarpaper shacks. College educations were rare. The native tongue was still commonly spoken. Talk to some old-timers at Red Lake and they'll tell you: When we were growing up, we didn't even know we were poor.

It's different today. And while pervasive economic privation has always been the rule at Red Lake, today's kids know what they're missing, thanks to the internet, satellite TV, and regular trips to Bemidji. They may take Ojibwe language classes in school, but outside the classroom they are as drenched in the popular culture of the day as the kids of Littleton or Jonesboro.

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