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Red Lake shootings shine light on Indian issues

Red Lake shootings shine light on Indian issues

Red Lake shootings shine light on Indian issues
Led by Daryl Lussier’s patrol vehicle, the caskets of Lussier and his companion, Michelle Sigana, are carried by a horse-drawn carriage through Red Lake, Minn., Saturday. Cody Thunder, left, and his girlfriend, Susan Fairbanks, watch as the funeral procession for police officer Daryl Lussier and his companion, Michelle Sigana, goes past Red Lake High in Red Lake, Minn., Saturday. Thunder was shot in the hip by Jeff Weise, a 16-year-old student at the school, on Monday.

Associated Press

RED LAKE, Minn. - The obituary in the small town paper was heartbreaking: Chase Albert "Beka" Lussier, born Dec. 23, 1989, died March 21 at Red Lake High School. A freshman who played basketball and loved computer games.

Six paragraphs down, beside the photograph of a chubby-cheeked, smiling boy, came this sentence: "He spent his time juggling life between his family and his son."

A father at 15. Dead three months later. Shot with eight others by an alienated, despondent upperclassman who, at the end of his 10-minute walk through Red Lake High School, turned one of his guns on himself.

The deaths, conspicuous in their senselessness, highlight the problems that American Indian teenagers have been quietly suffering in greater numbers than most adolescents: suicide, violence, depression and pregnancy.

By themselves, the numbers for the Red Lake Indian Reservation are staggering. A state survey conducted last year of 56 ninth-graders showed that 81 percent of the girls, and 43 percent of the boys, had considered suicide.

Nearly half the girls said they'd actually tried to kill themselves. Twenty percent of boys said the same - numbers about triple the rate statewide.

"I don't have an explanation for that," said Brenda Child, who teaches American Indian history at the University of Minnesota and grew up on the reservation. Her cousin, 14-year-old Ryan Auginash, was shot in the chest during 16-year-old Jeff Weise's march through the campus.

She doesn't want to view the shootings through the prism of American Indian troubles. "I see it as a problem of a young man who was deeply depressed," she said. "Sadly, that can happen anywhere."

Here, where the Red Lake band of Chippewa has lived in isolation on more than 830,000 acres in northern Minnesota since 1889, such things are not openly discussed.

It simply is not their way. For much of the week, they slammed the door of their reservation to the prying eyes of television cameras and reporters who wanted to know why Weise shot his grandfather, a tribal policeman everyone knew as "Dash," the man's girlfriend, and then drove to the high school entrance behind the wheel of his grandfather's police car, wearing his gunbelt and toting a shotgun. He opened fire at the front door, by the lone metal detector.

Tribal elders have said little, as have residents. Some students have been more open, describing Weise as a depressed, friendless boy who talked of shooting people.

On Web site postings, Weise described himself as "nothing but your average Native-American stoner" and described his life on the reservation as "every man's nightmare. This place never changes and it never will."

Weise had not always lived on the reservation. He arrived after his father committed suicide four years ago. His mother, a heavy drinker, was severely injured in an alcohol-related auto accident. The boy had nowhere else to go.

Some on the reservation say Weise had been seeing a professional and taking medication for his depression, which is evident on Internet postings such as this one, where under a section titled "A Little About Me," he typed "16 years of accumulated rage suppressed by nothing more than brief glimpses of hope, which have all but faded to black."

On Thursday, outside the hospital in Bemidji, a small town 32 miles south of the reservation, Andrew Auginash was there to visit his wounded brother, Ryan. "I don't want anything bad said about our reservation," he said. "It's like any other place."

The Minnesota survey of Red Lake students said they assaulted other classmates and used more alcohol and drugs than other students across the state.

Nationwide figures show that American Indian teenagers commit suicide at three times the national rate; are involved in alcohol-related arrests at twice the national average, and die in alcohol-related incidents at 17 times the national average.

They are third-highest in teen pregnancies, behind Hispanics and blacks.

"My mother moved us off the reservation when I was very young. And I am very glad she did that," says Bill Lawrence, publisher of the Native American Press-Ojibwe News, a 5,000-circulation weekly newspaper in Bemidji.

"The kids there come from drugs, alcohol, broken families, abuse," he says sadly. "To grow up under these circumstances is a tremendous ordeal. And to consider suicide means you think there is no other way out."

Lawrence is a member of the Red Lake band and has relatives and friends on reservation, he says. "Only the most gifted students can overcome this stuff. A lot of kids don't go to school. About 50 percent don't graduate. How do you go on after that? They're not qualified to get a job or go to college."

Sister Patricia Wallis has lived at the reservation, off and on, since 1951. To Wallis, the problems here come from grinding, dehumanizing, relentless poverty.

"They're not able to succeed in school. If something happens, or someone dies, or there's been an accident, they don't come regularly. Some stay at home because they have to baby-sit their siblings or they have to help out."

Another problem is housing, she said. There aren't enough places to live on the reservation, so families and cousins and children live crowded together in single homes. This has worsened lately, Wallis said, because many who left to make their way in the outside world are now returning in large numbers after failing to find any kind of work because they have no experience or training.

"When you put a lot of adults and children together in one house, you get bedlam," Wallis said. "The children get no rest, they get no sleep, arguments break out between the adults and they come to school carrying all this."

Wallis has not lost hope, and she is careful in choosing her words to describe life here for young people. "I love these people with all my heart," she says.

Then she tells the story of a sixth-grade boy whose father got a new girlfriend. The woman didn't like the boy. "She said 'Either he goes, or I go.' And guess who had to go? Now he's living with his cousins and he's suffering."

The boy grew angry in class at the reservation, she said, and he was pulled out by his relatives and sent to public school.

Children and teenagers here, despite the isolation and the cultural importance of turning inward, have only to sign on to the Internet, or turn on the satellite TV, to see that other people, in places not that far way, have things they don't.

"If you've never really been loved, how can you love yourself?" she asks. "How can you make something out of yourself?"

Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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