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?

In some senses, it does. Now home to about 7,000 people, Red Lake bears a unique legal status as Minnesota's only "closed reservation," meaning that all the land within its borders is held communally. The legacy is historic. In 1863, in its first treaty with the federal government, the Red Lake Ojibwe ceded vast tracts of lands to the government. As pressure built to open more Indian land to farming and timber harvest, congressional agents returned to Red Lake with the aim of forcing the tribe to surrender more land and, in accordance with the policy of the time, to divvy up the remaining holdings among individual tribal members. Over seven days of negotiations, Red Lake's leaders--led by the 82-year-old head chief May-dway-gwa-no-nind--agreed to turn over nearly 3 million additional acres, but steadfastly insisted that the remaining land be owned in common. (The old chief also demanded that alcohol be prohibited from the reservation, saying, "It would be the ruin of all these persons that you see here should that misfortune come to them." To this day, the reservation remains legally dry, though that policy is regularly violated.)

The decision to resist allotment, as the policy was known, has allowed Red Lake to stave off incursions from non-band members. On Minnesota's other Ojibwe reservations, many tribal members, either through naïveté or desperate circumstance, sold their allotments; consequently those reservations lost 90 percent or more of their original land base over the years. In practical terms, this has meant that places like Leech Lake and White Earth are much more integrated, and--to the eyes of outsiders, at least--less Indian and less set apart than Red Lake.

It is worth noting, too, that of the seven Ojibwe bands in the state, Red Lake is the only one that is not a member of the umbrella organization, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The sheer size of Red Lake (it's slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island) distinguishes it as well. Its vast pine and mixed hardwood forests seem to stretch on forever. The shoreline of the enormous lake that gives the reservation its name is mostly undeveloped. There are no strip malls, fast food restaurants, motels, or movie theaters, only the most basic commerce. It is also a place where the "vanishing American"--as Natives were called in a more paternalistic time--seems to retain an unusual degree of freedom from the larger society. White people typically come only as visitors, academics, or employees. Or when something awful happens, as journalists.

But the fact that Red Lake is a remote and insular community does not make it tight-knit in every sense. Red Lake's extended families, clan affiliations, and shared culture do foster an unusual degree of connectedness. At Red Lake, people know each other better than do people in similar-sized towns or suburbs elsewhere in Minnesota. Yet, the Red Lake of today is as much unraveled as tight-knit, riven by generational divides, clannishness, violence, and seemingly endless political tumult.

It has been that way for a long time. For most of the late 20th century, Red Lake was ruled by one of the best-known Indian leaders of his generation. A hard-nosed pragmatist, tribal chairman Roger Jourdain was especially adept at negotiating with the white institutional world. In part, this was a product of his disarming bluntness. In the 1960s, upset with the level of federal aid the reservation was receiving, he told one government official, "You are not giving us anything. You are merely returning a finger of sand for all you have taken."

During Jourdain's tenure, from 1959 to 1990, the tribe made strides toward modernity with massive improvements to its housing stock and infrastructure. Jourdain had a militant streak that was unusual among elected Indian officials of his day. For a time, non-band members doing business on the reservation were required to apply for passports, and in the early '80s the tribal council twice passed resolutions barring the news media from the reservation. The mantras of contemporary Indian identity, sovereignty and pride, have long been espoused at Red Lake. (It was the first tribal government in the country to issue its own license plates.)

But Jourdain's time as tribal chairman was also characterized by periods of considerable unrest. To his opponents, he was an outright autocrat who ran roughshod over anyone who disagreed with him. In 1979, after the Jourdain-led tribal council fired the secretary-treasurer, a riot erupted. Armed dissidents chased away the police before burning down Jourdain's home (effectively driving the chairman off the reservation), a new law enforcement complex, and about a dozen other buildings. In the melee that followed, two teenagers died of accidental gunshot wounds in the alcohol-fueled outburst, and Red Lake found itself in the national spotlight for the first time in the modern era.

The political tumult since then has been considerably more muted but has never stopped simmering. Some of the reasons are economic. For generations, the mainstays of the reservation economy were logging and commercial fishing. But in the mid-'90s, the walleye fishery at Red Lake collapsed, a result of mismanagement, over-harvest, and, as many would later admit, greed. With private industry scarce on the reservation and the closest city, Bemidji, 30 miles away, most jobs at Red Lake still involve working for the tribe in some capacity. As a result, elected officials at Red Lake wield more power over the lives of their constituents than do their counterparts in municipal and state government. In the view of critics, the governance at Red Lake often bears more resemblance to old-style city machine politics, with its ward-heeling and patronage, than the celebrated consensual process of tribal lore.

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.

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.

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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