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Grieving father reminds Haskell students of perils of alcohol

LAWRENCE, Kan. - One year ago, several students at Haskell Indian Nations University decided a 'back to school' keg party was in order. It went on through most of the night on the outskirts of Lawrence.

As dawn was breaking Aug. 28, 1999, the party was winding down and students began heading back across town to their dorm rooms.

Three young men at the party wouldn't live to see the sun fully up. A fourth victim would succumb a few weeks later.

A quirk of fate, a bad choice about drinking, forever changed the lives of seven families during those early morning hours said one victim's father.

The young men, laughing and alive only minutes before, lay broken and dead on the railroad tracks in north Lawrence. The pickup truck in which they were riding - in the back - went out of control and flipped onto the tracks. Dead at the scene were Michael Red Elk, Albert Whitebull and Joshua Longhat.

What had started out as a promising new school year for the staff and faculty at the university quickly turned into a nightmare as parents were contacted.

Throughout the past year, almost every event at Haskell included a tribute or prayer for the students who died. Honor songs and prayers for the families have become a part of school functions, along with pleas from the staff, asking students to make responsible choices.

Ron Red Elk, Comanche, was one of the parents devastated by the loss of a child that August morning. One year to the day later, he found himself talking to Haskell students during a convocation.

Memories of that first week of the 1999 school year have haunted Haskell President Dr. Karen Swisher. She asked Red Elk to speak. She said she hopes students will make responsible choices and another tragedy involving alcohol can be averted.

Red Elk had not spoken to any group since his son, Mike, died. He said he hoped he could spare other parents the grief he has lived with for the past year, by telling students of the real cost of bad choices while drinking.

As he began, Red Elk prayed in Comanche that students would hear what he had to say. "I prayed that my words would be blessed so you would hear."

An educator and a principal, Red Elk said the lesson he tried to teach students didn't come from books, it came from the experience of heartbreak.

Aided by two slide projectors, Red Elk told students his family history. On the left side of a large screen, he showed slides of his father growing up. On the right side were slides of Michael as a young boy and later as a young man.

Red Elk's father, despite all his promise, eventually died while still a young man because of alcohol, he said. The resemblance of Red Elk's father to his son, Michael, was uncanny. Students shifted in their seats. There was a concerted gasp from the crowd as slides of the two appeared, side by side.

But Red Elk said he wanted students to know the whole story of Michael, the young man he had been and the young man alcohol stole from his family. He said he wanted them to see beyond the physical resemblance and past the alcohol-related-death statistic.

"Mike didn't learn how to drink here at Haskell," Red Elk said. "He already knew how to do that."

Saying there was more to Michael than just another statistic, his father told students how much he had loved to hunt with his son. He showed pictures of Michael as he played football, held up the first turkey he ever killed ... a family vacation.

Red Elk said he found it ironic that his father as well as his son had attended Haskell, and even more ironic that they shared the same alcohol-related fate.

"This morning, about six o'clock, I went to a sacred place. I wanted to be there, see what the place was like at the time he was alive," Red Elk said.

"We did a lot of quail hunting and whenever I hear a quail, it reminds me of him because he was always whistling to let me know where he was."

Red Elk's quail whistled echoed, hauntingly, through a silent auditorium.

"This morning, he was whistling. I went to the side of the tracks," Red Elks said, his voice breaking. "It's tough. Please, please do not put your parents through that."

Students who hadn't known Michael or the other accident victims sat mesmerized as they listened to Red Elk, tears in their eyes.

Red Elk composed himself and warned students to know their family history. "If there is alcoholism in your family, don't drink. Keep a healthy body and a healthy mind."

Red Elk admitted being an alcoholic, but said he looked at his son in 1979 and realized that he had to quit to be a good example for him. He had told himself that he would quit for 20 years. The 20 years were up the week his son died.

"In 1979 - almost to the day Michael was killed in 1999 - I made a pledge. I made a commitment in 1979. I was returning from a golf tournament, drunk out of my mind, driving from Oklahoma City to Anadarko. Didn't know anything, didn't know the trip at all.

"That young man was the reason I quit. I lost my father at nine. I didn't want him to go through that. I wanted to see him grow to manhood. I told myself I would remain sober for twenty years.

"I think I saved my life, or somebody else's life. "You can't drink and drive."

Red Elk paused, then motioned to another slide of his son.

"Here is Michael in a happy time," Red Elk said. "But he was drinking by then."

As Red Elk showed the progression of his son through his drinking years, Michael's physical appearance changed from an athletic football player to a softer, heavier young man.

"They say you can't become an alcoholic on beer? They're wrong. This is one Native American family's experience of alcohol," Red Elk said.

He said he believed his son's search for his Comanche heritage was the first step Michael took to turn his life around. But it never had a chance to happen because, Red Elk said, "He had to go one more time. Don't put your parents through what Frances and I have been through the past year. If you love them, give it up. If you truly love them, don't start."

Red Elk showed students drug paraphernalia that Michael left at home. He said he believes his son was trying to change, but the call for one more time is what killed him.

Following a standing ovation, Student Senate President Walter Ahhaitty, Kiowa, spoke.

"A commitment I will make to you my fellow students, my fellow Indian people, I will not drink. I didn't pick up drinking here, I joined the Marine Corps," Ahhaitty said. "I've seen what Mr. Red Elk has said.

"When I was here before, I lost a friend to drinking. I don't want to see that anymore. When you go out to these local bars, to these drinking areas, don't go out and just get sloppy drunk. You don't need to go out and drink just to have fun."

Ahhaitty continued, "You say ... 'When I came here I didn't drink. My friends pressured me into it.' When you do that to a fellow person you might as well put a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger. Because that is the road you have introduced them to."

Ahhaitty concluded by telling students, "I'm gonna show you my fellow students that I am a good leader. As a leader, I set the example.

"If you don't feel like drinking don't be ashamed. If you have a problem with drinking, don't be afraid to speak up. There are a lot of people here to help you."

Ron Red Elk said he left the auditorium praying that what he said could save even one life.

"You know, on the way up here today, I heard a beer commercial on the radio. At the end it said, 'If you must drink, drink responsibly.' That's a joke. It is that part of your brain that goes first."