Same Country, Different Nation

The Real Red Lake

Life at Red Lake had regained a veneer of normalcy. On a string of unusually warm spring days in mid-April, kids could be seen riding bicycles, cruising the highway ditches on ATVs, shooting hoops, playing in streams--doing all the usual stuff kids at Red Lake do. But it was just a veneer. Rumors still persist that other students will eventually be charged with conspiracy in connection with the shootings. That prospect has fueled considerable unease. For Chunky Brun's daughter, Victoria, this has been an especially worrisome time. Her son, Virgil, was working as a security guard at the school the day her brother Derrick was killed. When Virgil went back to work, Victoria supported the decision--but only reluctantly. "I think it could happen again. Until they charge the people that need to be charged, this place isn't safe," she says, sitting at the kitchen table of the home she shares with her mother, father, and the assorted grandkids.

The Brun place is a pin-neat double-wide. The walls are lined with family portraits. There is a computer in the living room, a big television set, and simple but comfortable furnishings. In the backyard, there is a trampoline and a large open field that Francis Brun likes to use for golf practice. If he could get another 50 yards on his drive, he could ding St. Mary's, the Catholic mission school he attended as a boy. The house sits located across Highway 1 from the Red Lake Hospital and just down the road from the Red Lake Fire Department. This means that the sound of sirens often fills the air.

The family also keeps a police scanner running, which is how Victoria first learned about the shooting at the school. For Chunky Brun, who spent most of his adult life working for the tribe in various capacities, the scanner serves as a means to monitor criminal activity. But he doesn't really need a reminder. Like many people at Red Lake, Brun was touched by violence long before his son died in the school shootings. His home, along with a laundromat he owned, was among the structures burned down in the riots of 1979. After that, Brun moved to Bemidji for a spell. The family wanted to return to the reservation, so Brun, still working for the tribe, eventually relented. He sometimes wonders whether he did the right thing.

When he was growing up, fights were usually settled with fists, and the biggest outlaws in town were the bootleggers. Few people, he says, ever bothered to lock their houses. There wasn't much need because there wasn't much to steal. In the '60s, antipoverty programs began to change that, as improved housing and more federal and state funds poured into the reservation. With that came a rising tide of political activism, and Brun says, "things just started to get wild."

Then came the street drugs. Over the years, there have been a lot of "wake-up calls" at Red Lake. For Brun, the biggest one prior to the school shooting came in 2002. That's when his first cousin, George Stately, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer, allegedly at the hands of a crack-addicted woman to whom Stately had lent money earlier in the day. Brun and Stately had gone to high school together, and they were the last two surviving male graduates of Red Lake High School class of 1952.

Outrage over the crime led to the creation of a drug task force. The first meeting attracted 80 or so people. But, Brun says, participation in the task force waned as the months wore on. Some people, he recalls, dropped out for fear for their safety. Others reacted to rumors that a mob was the real power behind the task force. Others evidently didn't see fit to spend more time in a losing fight. Whatever the cause, the dissolution of the effort was a bitter pill and a preface of things to come.

"There are a lot of good people here, but there's also so much apathy," he says. "Sometimes my wife and I say we should just move the hell out. But we've got grandchildren and we don't want to run out on them. That's the only reason I keep plugging away." After a brief pause, he adds a final thought. "It's frustrating as hell."

In the weeks since his son's death, he hasn't slept much. When he does, he dreams of Derrick. He says his wife and daughter have been urging him to attend a healing ceremony in Minneapolis. He's decided against it because he figures he can't heal--doesn't want to heal--until he knows all there is to know about his son's death and whether or not other kids were actually involved in a plot. A few days earlier, Brun had gone to a gospel-style memorial service in Red Lake. He expected a big turnout, he says, but only about 60 people showed up. There were few familiar faces--"not a lot of Red Lake people"--and Brun left disappointed.

As he poses for a picture on the back porch of his home, a wave of fatigue washes across Brun's face. He shuffles back into his house. An ambulance passes by, sirens blaring, and a dog yowls. There are lots of free-roaming dogs at Red Lake; they are one of the first things a visitor invariably notices about the place. Them, and the satellite TV dishes. You see the latter everywhere--on roofs of the trailer homes with the plastic tacked to the windows and junk cars parked pell-mell in the yards, on the well-kept ramblers with the new trucks in the driveways, on the brand-new HUD homes with the vinyl siding and the swing-sets and brightly colored children's toys in the yards. And at night, the electronic hearths flicker in the windows at Red Lake, just like they do everywhere else.

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