Red Lake Struggles to Cope with Shooting Tragedy

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Tribal and religious ceremonies are being held in the Red Lake Native American reservation in northern Minnesota following Monday’s high school shooting that left 10 people dead. We speak with an indigenous rights activist who grew up in a neighboring reservation and we go to Minnesota to speak with a Bemidji community organizer. [includes rush transcript]

Tribal and religious ceremonies are being held in the Red Lake Native American reservation in northern Minnesota following Monday’s high school shooting that left 10 people dead.

While the Red Lake community struggles to cope with the tragedy, students and teachers are receiving counseling and the high school is scheduled to remain closed this week and next.

The incident began Monday when police say 17-year-old Jeff Weise went to the home of his grandfather–a longtime Red Lake police officer. Weise shot and killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend, then strapped on his police gunbelt and bulletproof vest. He then grabbed his grandfather’s police .40-caliber handgun and 12-gauge shotgun and headed off toward the high school in his squad car.

Police say Weise shot and killed the security guard and then roamed through the school shooting dead five students and a teacher before retreating to a classroom and shooting himself in the head. Another 12 people were injured. Five students remain hospitalized–at least two are listed in critical condition.

One student–Alicia Neadeau–described the incident:

“I was in the hallway, and we heard a gunshot, and the security guard jumped and she was like, 'get in the classroom.' And everybody got in the classroom, then she said, 'lock the doors' and my teacher got up to the desk and she pushed it over to the door and we had to barricade the door.”

Police say Weise had once posted messages on a neo-Nazi website, and fellow students told papers he had professed violent and suicidal thoughts. In 1997, Weise’s father committed suicide following a police standoff that lasted for more than a day. Years later, his mother suffered brain damage in a car accident after she and a friend had been drinking. Jeff Weise lived with his grandfather ever since.

Monday’s shooting took place on the reservation of the Red Lake Chippewa Tribe. It is located in a remote area about 240 miles north of Minneapolis and about 75 miles south of the Canadian border. It is one of the poorest reservations in the region.

  • Audrey Thayer, community organizer in Bemidji with the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake reservations. She works with the ACLU in Minnesota as part of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project. She is an enrolled member of the White Earth Reservation. She knows a number of the families who have lost loved ones and has met with them.
  • Mattie Harper, an indigenous rights activist and a producer at WBAI’s First Voices Indigenous Radio. She grew up in the neighboring Leech Lake reservation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Minnesota to speak with Audrey Thayer. She’s a community organizer in Bemidji with the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Reservations. She works with the ACLU in Minnesota as part of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project, is an enrolled member of the White Earth Reservation. She knows a number of the families who have lost loved ones and has met with them. In our studio, we’re joined by Mattie Harper. She is an indigenous rights activist, a producer at WBAI’s First Voices Indigenous Radio. She grew up in the neighboring Leech Lake Reservation, and we welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: We want to begin with Audrey Thayer, can you talk about the reaction right now? What is going on at Red Lake right now?

AUDREY THAYER: Well, the encouraging thing right now is families are beginning to publicly talk about their children that they have lost. We have begun wakes today in Red Lake for some of the Christian families. Burials begin on Saturday through Monday. I think it’s right now a very — they had a memorial service up in Red Lake that was well attended with many, many pipe carriers. We organized one in Bemidji on Tuesday at noon. Two of the churches in Bemidji have put services together for the community. Bemidji has got 10% of the native population for the three reservations up here. So the mood has been, of course, for the Red Lake Nation, a sad one. This is devastating, tragic. I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to make sure that I am at all of the wakes. I know every one of the families, including the teacher.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Audrey Thayer, the shooting is eerily reminiscent of the Columbine shooting several years ago in that this appears to have been an extremely troubled young man. Are you able to tell from your involvement there to what degree he was getting some intervention or support for — in his troubles?

AUDREY THAYER: The Red Lake Nation has been — with what little resources they have, I would like to say, that they have always had the best they can in programs and services for their people. Having a parent who has — who had ended his life some years ago for this young man, that is not uncommon in Indian country. We have many, many young people who don’t have — they have a loss of one parent or two. And you never know human nature, and how a twist of fate for this young man — he was very intelligent, very quick. When you look at some the drawings he did, and the work that he was involved with that’s been released I believe last night, you know, he was a loner, but who wouldn’t be when you’re grieving. Any time that you have lost somebody significant in your life, you become an outsider to yourself for many years. So, you know, I look — it’s a much bigger picture for this young man. But I do believe that Red Lake Nation made the best attempts. I cannot speak for the family on how they feel. But that’s certainly my position I would take at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: Mattie Harper, you grew up on a neighboring reservation, Leech Lake Reservation and went to school in Bemidji. Can you talk about the community of Red Lake?

MATTIE HARPER: Well, the Red Lake community is very unique in that the reservation has always been a bit isolated, both physically, and then if you look at the political and historical context, being a closed nation in that it was one of seven Ojibwa nations in the state to emerge as a part of the reservation system, but that it was able, fortunately, to be able to resist the Indian Reorganization Act, and when the government implemented new forms of government that were more suited to their needs to deal with Indian peoples how they chose to. So the Red Lake government always resisted this, so Red Lake — we always sensed that it was different from the rest of the indigenous communities because they had this legacy of more resistance, and also there are communities where there’s a lot of spiritual practices and ceremonies that have been maintained. That’s not to say that these are not happening on the other reservations, but we have always known that practices that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years are still going on, as they always were.

And I also — I think it’s really interesting the non-Native response to this, looking at the media. A lot of journalists and people from mass media were very, I think, taken aback that the reservation was closed to journalists. And there’s some speculation that I heard that this was being masterminded by the FBI or that they’re trying to assert theirselves because Red Lake has tribal sovereignty, but I sense right away, and then after talking with a lot of people, you know, throughout the past couple of days, it seems that this is the Red Lake Tribal Council’s independent decision, and that it’s just the natural cultural response to grieve. So, I mean, our relationship with the media, our historical relationship has just been fraught with so much animosity and tension, just because it’s been the media for perpetuating so many stereotypes over the history.

And another point I would like to say is I think it’s very interesting and remarkable that President Bush has failed to make any comment on what has happened, because for Indian country, I mean, not just Red Lake and not just Ojibwa country, but I think all of the indigenous peoples of, we would say Turtle Island, which is — you know, we don’t consider — we don’t break it up into the United States and Canada, but everybody is feeling this, this grief, because this is totally unprecedented for this mass murder to happen, for one of our people to kill so many of our own people, and for the youth to happen. And for George Bush to be silent, I mean, it just shows his utter disregard, I think, for Indian country, that he is not showing any respect or making any sort of comment. I think it just really shows how we’re not really in the forefront of his mind. I think it’s hard for a leader, such as George Bush of the United States, to really acknowledge indigenous pain, because that brings up the whole cultural and historical legacy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Audrey Thayer, what about that issue, again, comparing this to the tragedy of Columbine several years ago when the entire nation seemed to grieve, and the press coverage was almost non-stop of the incident? Do you think that there is a marked difference in the reaction because this occurred on native land?

AUDREY THAYER: Well, I have to agree with Mattie on this issue, and I have to talk a little bit about even the Bemidji community and what has happened up here. And of course, what I do in the Racial Justice Project which is focusing on the 97% of six counties up here that are incarcerated with Indian people, and we’re considered the Birmingham of the north, you know, the city of Bemidji, in regard to the three reservations. Right now, of course, the law enforcement of the Beltrami County is doing a very, very fine job of being in support of Red Lake, and that’s important. But it is interesting. It will be interesting to see the Governor Polenti come up here, who has completely massacred — massacred programs that would affect Indian people, state programs. We have an administration that does not serve any dollars for indigenous people. You know, I get calls in my office of indigenous people and ironically, I have talked with some of the families that we are going to be burying some of their family members this next few days, but you know, they’ll call and say, you know, I am the landlord or the landlady of this country, and yet I don’t have enough money to pay for my gas, you know, to keep my home warm. You know, because there’s no programs extended. These are the working poor. Indian people are known for their hard work, their diligence in the community, and if they’re offered something, a job, they’re working. But you drive to the city of Bemidji, in very few of the stores will you see Indian people working. I have been disappointed in both of the prayer services in Bemidji. I thank so much the people from Bemidji that came to the pipe ceremony on Tuesday, to the two prayer services at the two separate churches the last few days. But those churches should have been full. And there was only 100 at the Catholic Church. There was very few at the Episcopal Church which has a huge population of urban Indians from Bemidji that they have a mission church for in the city here. I had expected to see an outpouring. Now, needless to say, many, many cards and gifts and monies are going to Red Lake. So, I don’t want to offend those who are giving, because there is a population of people that know that this country has failed our people, have failed indigenous people. And now, all of a sudden, we are focused like Columbine. And it’s a class issue. Columbine was an upper middle class community. This is not. This is not. This is totally different. I like to think that the people in Red Lake Nation, Leech Lake, White Earth and the indigenous nations, we are givers in this country. We have given, given and given. So I’m hoping that something good — something good will come out of all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: The news reports coming out — you know, this hasn’t been confirmed, but that Jeff Weise, this young man, number one, they’re just saying today, was on Prozac and the connection between Prozac and violence. The other, that he went online using the name “Native Nazi” and was into neo-Nazi stuff. Mattie Harper, your comments on that?

MATTIE HARPER: Well, I’m not really sure what to say to that. I think that this is just a very unique and particular case. The thing that I do find interesting as far as the news that I read regarding that was that he had made this statement saying that only 1% of the people on his reservation spoke the language, and it makes it — for me, it draws attention to maybe the pain that is very real and present on a lot of reservations in not having the language there. So, maybe it was something that — his rage that grew out of that. I think that it would help the American public to understand what Native American people are going through, if they would sort of investigate and follow that, because you know, we have the whole very close history of the boarding schools where, you know, my grandparents went to boarding schools and people in their 40s who went to boarding schools where they were beaten if they spoke their language.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the boarding schools.

MATTIE HARPER: The boarding schools program started in, I think, it was like the mid-1850s, and the programs ended in the 1940s. But they were first initially set up, I think, by the Jesuits and then other Christian missionaries, and then they were state sponsored programs. It was part of the assimilation program where kids were taken from their families and told they needed to get an education. So there, they were beaten. Lots of kids died of malnutrition. They were starved. And they were forced to speak English. A lot of times they couldn’t afford to get home, so there was this huge link broken with the families, as far as the language and the culture. And then also these people, these kids lost their parenting skills, their ability to have a relationship. So, then you have these people who were then sent back to the reservation or, you know, after they ended this program, and then trying to raise families and not being able to parent. And how do you — I mean, this — if you look now at all of the violence and the poverty and a lot of the substance abuse on the reservation, it’s a direct result of that. And people act as though — I think there’s a common impression that Indians are just poor, and that’s sort of how it is, but we need to understand why.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Audrey Thayer, what does the community do from now forward, in terms of after the funerals are done? Are there any thoughts on your part?

AUDREY THAYER: Yeah. That is the big question now that we have been talking about the last few days, and how do we reach our youth and be with them, be with our youth. Monday, I start some training programs in Bemidji working with some of the teachers, who have Red Lake students in the charter schools, so that they’re prepared when they come back. That is going to be truly a challenge for us, because it’s like everybody will leave, and here we sit again, you know, with grief and loss. I want to mention Indian people are very used to grieving. Between the two reservations up here, I can be at any given funeral two or three times a week. We live in a life of never really healing over the last grief of someone losing their lives up here. So, to have ten all at once is just traumatic. So, the youth. We’re going to take a look at how to start organizing and developing programs, and helping them, because ultimately, if my program doesn’t help in that process, I will see more in the system because of grief and loss. That will be the end result, and we’ll end up with more young people incarcerated because of grief and loss.

AMY GOODMAN: Audrey Thayer, I want to thank you for being with us, of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project, and Mattie Harper of First Voices Indigenous Radio.


AMY GOODMAN: Here at Pacifica station, WBAI, who grew up nearby the Red Lake Reservation.

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