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A Wiping of the Tears

Suffering Red Lake Nation Endures the Worst of Days

by DORREEN YELLOW BIRD

In the long history of the Red Lake Nation, Monday will go down among the worst of all days. It is when the lives of 10 people ended before they could step into tomorrow.

Nine were gunned down; seven are recovering from shots fired by one of their own–a young student, Jeff Weise, who took his own life.

I arrived at Red Lake at dusk Monday. The serenity and calm of this Chippewa nation was broken by red and blue lights spinning from ambulances and police cars. Marked cars cruised the length of Minnesota 89, which runs through the community.

The reservation gate was marked by orange flares and State Patrol squads. From the highway, I could see the new Indian Health Service Hospital. Many people milled around the parking lot. I could see others crowded against the windows of the hospital, many with tears on their faces.

This is a community of about 5,000 residents. And it is a community in pain.

Being in Indian Country means many are related in some way to each other. When there is trouble or someone is hurt in Indian Country, we all come together to support that person and their family.

Where I’m from on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, it’s common to find 20 or 30 people in a hospital lobby or waiting rooms, ready to stay with the injured person until he or she is well. Apparently that’s common at Red Lake, too.

At the hospital, I could see groups of young people in the parking lot and standing on the sidewalks, holding each other, crying softly and whispering in low voices.

The anguish was deep and visible. Then I heard a crying and wailing so loud that the sound crawled up my spine. It was an older woman, supported by two young women, wailing as I’ve heard Native elders do when the pain is so deep that the sound comes from the depth of their soul.

I brushed away tears and swallowed hard.

When I returned the next morning, I saw a bald eagle perched on the top branch of an evergreen. Its head was crooked, as if it was watching the goings-on below. Earlier that day, a Pipe ceremony was held outside the hospital in Bemidji, Minn., where some of the injured were being treated.

An eagle circled high overhead that ceremony, one of our reporters said; reports from St. Paul said eagles also circled a Pipe ceremony at the Capitol.

The Eagle Grandfathers have come to help with the healing, I thought. The spiritual leaders are calling them.

I talked to friends I’ve met in inipi or sweat ceremonies and one of my Sundance brothers. They told me that beyond the media glare, the tribe’s spiritual leaders were taking action. They were holding inipis and Pipe ceremonies that evening and would continue as long as necessary.

They would go to the school and wipe it clean, a teacher of Indian culture said. The terror and killing will need to be erased. It will need to be cleaned with smudge and prayer so the community can begin anew. It would be like a "wiping of the tears" ceremony, he told me.

Then I talked with people about those who passed away. The gut-wrenching hurt you feel when someone dear passes away was multiplied by 10, I could see. I lost my mother in December, and the hurt and deep sadness I felt was awful; I sensed their pain was so many times worse.

As I turned my car toward home late Tuesday night, I knew the Red Lake people are strong. They have lost so much over the centuries and have survived.

And, as some of the spiritual leaders said, this, too, they will survive.

DORREEN YELLOW BIRD, a Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald columnist, is an Arikara member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, New Town, N.D.