Red Lake tragedy has roots in inequities

In the wake of the March 21 shooting at Red Lake Indian Reservation, Native Americans and advocates for children say the tragedy has its roots in racism, the oppression of Native Americans, and misplaced national priorities that adversely impact America’s youth in general.

Sixteen-year-old Jeff Weise, a sophomore at Red Lake High School, shot and killed his grandfather, who was a tribal policeman, and his grandfather’s companion with a .22 caliber rifle, then took his grandfather’s police weapons to the school and used them to kill a security guard, a teacher and five students, before killing himself. Seven others were wounded. The shootings, like those at Columbine, shook the nation.

Weise’s troubled history shone a spotlight on the multiple crises Native American people face. His father killed himself eight years ago, and his mother lives in a Minneapolis assisted living facility due to a brain injury suffered in a 1999 car accident. Weise reportedly suffered from depression, and had tried to commit suicide previously. He is said to have frequented Nazi web sites, and posted online comments reflecting pain and despair.

Morna Murray, co-director of education and youth development for the Children’s Defense Fund, says this tragedy, like other school shootings, shows the “terrible and pervasive problem” of “too many guns floating around our country.”

Further, Murray said, health care for the poor and funds for programs that care for kids as they’re growing up are all being cut. “We have a problem with priorities,” she said, also noting the “enormous clout” of the National Rifle Association.

A survey of 56 ninth-graders at Red Lake last year showed that 81 percent of the girls and 43 percent of the boys had considered suicide. Nearly half the girls and 20 percent of the boys said they had tried to kill themselves — about triple the statewide rate. American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from 70 percent higher suicide and more than double the homicide rates of non-Indians.

The National Indian Health Board calls suicide and other preventable health problems “a growing epidemic” fueled by “significant disparities” in preventative health care funding. The board says, “Indian communities have been largely overlooked.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reports, “The federal government spends less per capita on Native American health care than on any other group … including Medicaid recipients, prisoners, veterans and military personnel.” Reservation unemployment rates are about triple the national average. Although a Senate committee found that approximately 12 percent of Indian homes lack adequate water supply and waste disposal, President Bush’s 2006 budget calls for cuts in housing assistance for American Indians.

But despite these grim realities, many Native Americans point to the strength of tribal communities and their role in sustaining a culture of mutual support.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians is known for a strong sense of community and tradition. Some 5,000 members live on the reservation, in Minnesota’s north woods. It is one of the few reservations nationally that have held onto their lands in common. Red Lake Fisheries, a co-op established in 1929, is the oldest and largest tribal fishery on the continent. The tribe also runs a construction company and a specialty food business.

“We have always looked to them for our teaching and our culture,” says Elaine Fleming, a member of the nearby Leech Lake tribe. Fleming chairs the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Leech Lake Tribal College, and is mayor of Cass Lake.

“Red Lake has so many positive things going on,” she told the World. “Despite the poverty, the substance abuse, they’re the ones trying to fix their own problems.” Like other tribes, she said, Red Lake is trying to preserve its traditions and culture in the face of the legacy of colonialism and racism.

When Indians go into a store in Bemidji, the region’s urban hub, they are constantly made aware of “who you are, because of the way you are treated — followed around, treated as less than other people,” she said. Since the shooting, however, she has noticed many supportive signs in the town. “I hope that will carry on. Then we wouldn’t have to feel so poorly about ourselves,” she said.

Fleming asks her students at the tribal college what the culture of the U.S. offers them. It’s capitalism, and it gives them “the rulers and the ruled, no power,” they reply. Instead of the constant emphasis on making money, Fleming says, “We need to give them something to believe in that will help their spirit.”

“It has to be more than school spirit and basketball,” she said.