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Day 17

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"Never Laugh at Your Children"

Horror and Hope at Red Lake Nation

by SCOTT RICHARD LYONS

There’s an old Ojibwe saying: Gego baapiineminaken gidaabinoojiiyug. Never laugh at your children. That motto invokes a sacred Anishinaabe value: manaaji’idiwin, or deep respect. We are to respect others, no matter how young or weak or strange, in part because what goes around eventually comes around. This especially holds true for children. Not only because they have power – as elders will tell you, the only person who ever tricked the Trickster was a child – but also because that child will one day be an adult.

I thought of this ancient Ojibwe wisdom when I heard about the horrifying and tragic school shooting at Red Lake Nation. It was reported that during the assault the shooter, Jeff Weise, was waving his arms and laughing.

Laughing.

Who, I wondered, had ever laughed at him?

This question of respect seems central to any understanding of the March 21 shooting. If we are to adequately comprehend this tragedy, we must approach the perpetrator, his victims and their tribal nation carefully and with utmost respect. So as we begin the process of mourning this sad, senseless event, let us be clear about one thing: at 16 years of age, Jeff Weise was still a child.

He was no monster, although some will doubtless say that he was. He was no Nazi, no matter how bizarre his Internet habits. He was not an ”Angel of Death,” a ”Red Lake Rampager” or a ”lost youth,” or any other gimmicky stereotype the media might cook up in the absence of understanding. Jeff was a child. Yes, deeply disturbed. And one who somehow lost all sense of manaaji’idiwin. Why?

I’m not going to pretend to know the reasons why an individual would pick up weapons and start shooting children. Does anyone ever figure out why these things happen? Did we ever discover the One True Cause of the Columbine killings?

These things are complicated – as complex and immense as life and death and teenagers themselves. There can never be one cause for events such as these, and we should distrust anyone who claims to have easy answers. There are, however, certain conditions to consider, certain questions to ask, if we hope to build a world in which such things never, ever happen. And in Ojibwe country, we do have hope for that world.

First, as we find on so many reservations today, Red Lake Nation is a community of poverty. Thirty-nine percent of the population lives below the poverty line; 4 out of 5 students at Red Like High School qualify for free or reduced lunch. And we know that poverty breeds violence. It just happens that way – there are no impoverished communities free of violence.

Furthermore, this condition of poverty is not reducible to any failings of the Red Lake people, but rather owes itself to a much larger and irrefutable history of colonialism. Who among us has acknowledged that gaping historical wound and the traumas it repeatedly engenders? Is it possible to understand this tragedy separate from the related contexts of colonialism and community poverty?

Second, Jeff was a visibly Indian teenaged male, which means he was part of the least-trusted, most-feared social group in northern Minnesota. Everyone who lives in that part of the country knows it, whether they admit it or not: Indian teenagers are generally viewed as a problem. This is not the fault of teens (as if they would do it to themselves). This is a problem with the larger society, and its name is racism.

What social institutions hold great promise and high expectations for Native teenagers? Schools? Businesses? Mass media? Government? No. As with other teens of color, in northern Minnesota Native kids are typically more feared than nurtured, more disdained than celebrated, and nearly always publicly discussed as carriers of problems, not potentials. One predictable result of this general lack of respect is low self-esteem. Little wonder that, as a Harvard study recently concluded, 1 out of 6 Native teenagers today has attempted suicide. Aside from perhaps family and friends, who in the larger society is acknowledging that their lives are worth living?

Third, Jeff had no problem getting past the security system that Red Lake already had in place at the school, including a metal detector and a security guard. Presumably the metal detector went off, and he shot the security guard. As many have already noted, Red Lake High School is one of the most ”secure” schools in the region, with towering fences and barbed wire circling the grounds. Can we now admit that excessive security systems at schools probably don’t work to prevent massacres like this one? Might we suggest that they could actually contribute to a sense of children feeling like prisoners?

Fourth, as with nearly all Americans, Jeff had easy access to weaponry.

Finally, perhaps most important of all, Jeff was raised in a larger and truly worrisome cultural context of American violence. I’m not talking about video games and movies, although these too are problematic. I’m referring to an America that repeatedly sends a clear and disturbing message to its citizens and children: namely, if you have a problem with somebody else, violence is the best way to solve it.

At 16, Jeff would have possessed no memory of an extended period of time when the U.S. wasn’t engaged in the practice of bombing some country it had a grievance with. During his most formative years, he saw this nation’s president abandon diplomacy and cooperation for ”bring it on” and ”shock and awe.” In this context, how can we reasonably expect Jeff Weise, or any teenager, not to consider armed violence an appropriate answer to life’s problems?

It will likely be concluded by politicians and pundits that this shooting was an isolated act of violence committed by a lost youth, and that we probably need greater security and harsher punishments for dangerous teens. But clearly it was not an isolated incident. It was a social incident. And Jeff was already subject to heightened security and harsh punishment – which don’t seem to have done any good.

Let us stay focused on the big picture, the social context in which children, including but not only Natives, are raised. From the very moment of his birth, Jeff’s life was defined by violence – the violence of community poverty, the violence of racism, the violence of little respect and few opportunities, the violence of guns, security systems, punitive politics and growing militarism. Until these acts of everyday violence are put to an end, how can we ever expect our children to live peacefully? How can we raise our children to treat themselves and others with manaaji’idiwin?

America needs a Peacemaker to emerge, and so does Native America.

One bright light during these dark days is the tremendous dignity with which Red Lake Nation, so honorably represented by Tribal Chairman Floyd ”Buck” Jourdain, is handling the crisis. In particular, Red Lake’s refusal to allow media vultures to harass the community was an act of great wisdom and foresight. The community is already reorganizing itself, and their spirit is strong. Red Lake will heal from this. And all of Indian country is behind them. There is courage and compassion and respect there – and where those virtues exist, so too does hope.

SCOTT RICHARD LYONS, Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches writing, literature and Native American Studies at Syracuse University.

This article was originally published in Indian Country Today, March 23, 2005