Same Country, Different Nation

The Real Red Lake

In 1999, I spent a week around the Red Lake school while working on a story about the boys' basketball team. At Red Lake, as on many reservations, basketball is a very big deal. There was more excitement than usual that year, because the team was making a run for a state title. One night while I was there, the Red Lake squad routed a visiting team. Fans packed the bleachers, and a sizeable contingent of wheelchair-bound older people--mainly, diabetic amputees--watched the game from behind the hoops. After it was over, a sea of little children swarmed the players on the court, clamoring for autographs and squealing with delight. The parents and other adults, while more restrained, were beaming, too.

The story was easy to report. For the most part, people were open and talkative, pleased that, for once, a positive story would be written about the reservation. Floyd "Buck" Jourdain--who is now the tribal chairman and whose 16-year-old son, Louis, has been arrested in connection with the Weise shootings--was then a counselor at Red Lake High School. He approached me one day at the school. "You see articles about Red Lake and it's all gloom and suicide and poverty. We've been given a bad name," Jourdain complained.

As a visiting journalist, though, I wasn't just interested in the basketball team. The assignment was also a chance to take a look at life at Red Lake, and an honest look was not without its bleak aspects. The previous year, one of the players on the team, Wesley Strong, had been stabbed to death at a party. The killing underscored a fundamental reality of the reservation: You would be hard-pressed to find a Red Lake band member who doesn't have a close friend or family member who died early as the result of a suicide, car accident, or murder.

The day of the shooting, I thought about making the four-hour trip to the reservation and joining the media horde there to investigate what would be referred to, again and again, as "the nation's worst school shooting since Columbine." My feelings were mixed. I suspected there would be strict limits placed on reporters, and there were. For the first few days, all but the most resourceful of reporters spent most of their time penned up in a parking lot outside the enforcement center, where they received a quick lesson in the limits of constitutional rights in Indian country.

Beyond that concern, I felt a certain squeamishness. By and large, people at Red Lake may be more accustomed to dealing with premature death than most. But the school shootings constituted an unprecedented kind of devastation. For violent death to come to 10 people in a single day--that probably hadn't occurred at Red Lake since sometime in the 1750s, when the Ojibwe first wrested control of the area in a series of battles with the previous inhabitants, the Dakota.

Who, I wondered, would possibly want to talk about the shootings in their immediate aftermath? As it turned out, quite a few people did. While newspapers ran stories about Red Lake "closing ranks" and "turning inward," the more enterprising reporters on the scene, especially the ones canny enough to use Red Lake band members as stringers, managed to get interviews with friends and family members of both the victims and the perpetrator. Some of the families who lost relatives in the shooting wanted to talk about the deceased and, more broadly, about the troubles of the reservation.

None was more open than Francis "Chunky" Brun, the former tribal administrator. Brun's son, Derrick, had been working as a part-time security guard at the school. He was the first person shot by Jeff Weise as he stormed the school entrance. Not long after, I reached Brun on the phone and asked him why he chose to speak to reporters and what he thought of the intense media coverage. His experience, he said, was mixed. He regretted giving some television interviews because they tended to boil his words down to a single remark. "They just played the same quotes over and over again," he sighed. Yet, despite his anguish, Brun also saw in the shootings a chance to get out word about life at Red Lake "in the hope that the words land on a sympathetic ear off the reservation."

So Brun talked. He didn't venture a guess as to the particulars of Jeff Weise's particular motivations. But his assessment of conditions on the reservation was bleak and candid. While many band members pin their hopes for the future on the resurgence of traditional spiritual practices, Brun, who is 70 and therefore by the cultural norm "an elder," doesn't put much stock in that. At Red Lake, he said, spirituality comes to the fore in times of tragedy and then tends to recede. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to set our priorities, and education ought to be number one," he said.

He talked more about the practical problems facing Red Lake today. Crime is out of control, he says, in part because of jurisdictional conflicts between tribal and federal authorities. In Red Lake Tribal Court, drug prosecutions are often unsuccessful because "some technicality" results in dismissal of charges. But the main problem, Brun said, is not drugs or godlessness or gangs: It's the lack of good jobs. The work available to most tribal members is mainly of the $7-an-hour variety. That is approximately what Derrick Brun was earning at Red Lake High School the day he was shot.

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