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
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.
Who, I wondered, had 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
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
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 Lake High School qualify for free
or reduced-price lunches. 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 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 teenage 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
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 prevent massacres like this one? Might we suggest
that they could actually contribute to a sense of children feeling like
Fourth, as with nearly all Americans, Jeff had easy access to weaponry.
Finally, perhaps most importantly, 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
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 a 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
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 Jr., 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 its
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.