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It is with a feeling of sorrow that I write you telling of the death of your daughter Lizzie. She was sick but a short time and we did not think her so near her end. Last Wednesday I was called away to Minneapolis and I was very much surprised upon my return Saturday evening to find she was dead, as they had given us no information except she might live for a number of months. Those that were with her say she did not suffer, but passed away as one asleep. I am very sorry that you could not have seen your daughter alive, for she had grown quite a little and improved very much since you let her come here with me. If we had known she was going to live but so short a time, we would have made a great effort to have gotten you here before she died.
So wrote the superintendent of Flandreau Indian School to the father of a student who died of tuberculosis in a government boarding school in 1907. The recent deaths of students at Red Lake High School remind me that this is not the first tragedy in the history of Indian education.
Hundreds of children like Lizzie died at boarding school, never to return to their families and communities. Indians survived that dark era with tribal cultures largely intact and a remarkable commitment to the future of their people. As a historian who has written about American Indian people during an era when the United States government followed a policy to break up Indian families through assimilation programs and government boarding schools, I have often been inspired by the strength of Ojibwe family ties and the heroism of children.
Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that school guards acted bravely, and that some Red Lake students shielded others during the shooting with their own bodies or pulled classmates to safety. A Red Laker would do that. Courage, fortitude, and the ability to act for others are built into tribal life and are the very foundation of Ojibwe values.
On Sept. 21, 2004, exactly six months before the tragic shootings took place at Red Lake, a number of people from our tribe attended the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, the latest branch of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Together we marched under the Red Lake flag in the “Native Nations Procession.”
I spent a few days in Washington as a consultant to the new resource center for the museum, and wrote an essay for the museum’s inaugural book, “Native Universe: Voices of Indian America.” Billed as “one of the largest gatherings of Native peoples in the 21st century,” it was a joyous public event.
Thousands of Indians from all over this hemisphere organized in the early morning for a walk up the mall to the new museum at the foot of the Capitol building. As a gesture of remembrance, I wore my mother’s red dance shawl in the procession. She spoke Ojibwe while growing up in Red Lake during an era when Indian culture was rarely celebrated in American society.
A half year later, we are a community in mourning.
In the aftermath of this tragedy I have received many messages and phone calls from generous students and friends. Colleagues in the United States, Canada and beyond have extended their sympathy. The other day I received a formal message of condolence from a mayor and city councilman in Spain that I will forward to our own tribal council. I had given a talk there in December. Everyone I ran into inquired about my family and expressed heartfelt sadness over the tragedy.
My own family spent several anxious hours that day before we learned the status of one of our relatives wounded in the shooting. That evening his older brother phoned us from the hospital with the news we hoped for but did not expect: He survived. But as an extended family, all Red Lakers are devastated.
It is heartening that countless expressions of sympathy have been extended to members of families who lost their beloved children and loved ones, or to children who bear physical or psychological wounds, and to the entire Red Lake Nation. We especially appreciate the kindness from the people of Minnesota.
Our tribal council has received condolences from across Indian Country, many from the same tribal leaders and people who gathered in Washington last September. We knew them already from boarding school. As Indian people, our histories are intertwined and we support one another.
Ojibwe people follow traditions that call for a formal year of grieving after a death. I have always been deeply impressed by how Ojibwe people conduct themselves in mourning, with a profound cultural understanding of the psychology of grief that is unparalleled in my experience.
Perhaps this is what sustained Indian people during the boarding school era. When a year has passed, bereaved family members hold a giveaway ceremony and feast to thank those who embraced them in their time of sorrow and despair. The Red Lake Nation is in mourning, and next year there will be so many people to thank.
BRENDA CHILD, Red Lake Ojibwe, is associate professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota and author of “Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families: 1900-1940.”