When my eyes fell upon Marry Two Bulls' pained tribute to the Red Lake
tragedy - a depiction of James Earle Fraser's famous 1915 "End of the
Trail" statue that showed a bare-chested, defeated and dejected Indian
warrior sitting on an equally exhausted and forlorn horse - in the April 6
edition of Indian Country Today, I was deeply moved.
I had always despised Fraser's statue, since it was meant to depict what he
and many in America believed at the time that First Nations were
physically, mentally and culturally spent and it was "inevitable" that we
would soon vanish from the face of the earth, having been overwhelmed by
allegedly superior whites who wielded allegedly superior languages,
cultures, religion and technologies.
The rights, resources and reason of indigenous nations were, indeed, under
full assault at the time Fraser's art was completed, as we had been for the
previous century and a half. But tribal nations were already showing signs
of a remarkable resurgence, even in the face of unrelenting and
concentrated attacks on our lands, identities and souls. So, Fraser was
perfectly wrong in predicting our impending demise as Native people.
Still, the devastating amount of violence unleashed within the heart of the
Red Lake Nation a few weeks ago by a deeply troubled youth, Jeffrey Weise,
has left me and countless others feeling precisely the way Two Bulls so
powerfully and poignantly reconfigured Fraser's "End of the Trail" warrior:
sitting on our horses with hands to our foreheads, mournfully pondering the
scope, meaning and warning of such a tragic episode.
Because Jeffrey also took his own life, we will never know exactly what
prompted him to engage in human slaughter on such a massive scale, and of
his own people. I've read dozens of stories that have emphasized one or
more of a bevy of possible "factors" that might have prompted him to do
what he did: bullying by peers, an overdose of Prozac, the role alcohol
played in his family and nation's life, socio-economic deprivation, his
father's suicide, inadequate school security, gun prevalence, internal
colonialism, societal and personal violence, child abuse, individual mental
instability, neo-Nazi influences, Goth culture, indigenous cultural
breakdown, and media and technology among others.
At least some of these factors, and possibly others, commingled and pushed
Jeffrey to engage in the unprecedented - from a Native perspective - series
of violent actions that have left Red Lake, Indian country, and much of the
world in a shocked and debilitated emotional state.
Fortunately, Native communities have retained and regularly practice
cleansing and healing ceremonies that will help school officials, the Red
Lake community, and especially the families of the deceased and those who
were grievously injured, to eventually regain a sense of harmony and
Given the enormous and ever-increasing pressures that Native (and
non-Native) youth continue to cope with, I fervently believe our
communities must find ways to address the social, cultural and political
conditions that act to overly constrain, frequently demoralize and
generally deny the inherent sovereignty of our young people.
Consider the following realities:
Young people are by far the poorest segment of Native and non-Native
Our youth are more physically and sexually abused than any other group.
The U.S. Constitution is absolutely silent on the subject of children and
young people. Children and youth lack the basic right of liberty to come
and go at will.
Young people below the age of 18 experience "compulsory" education; not
Parents wield "plenary" (virtually absolute) power over all aspects of
their children's lives.
Children and youth generally lack property and are therefore economically
and politically powerless.
U.S., state and tribal laws tend to speak of children's "interests" rather
than of their "rights."
Young people endure fundamentally conflicting images in the law, society,
and media they tend to be depicted either as innocent, immature and
incompetent or as vigorous, autonomous, self-determined and adult-like
Last, children and young people are often discussed solely in a prospective
form, that is, as representing the "future generation." But this approach
denies the real significance of the child or youth's immediate needs or
rights by concentrating on an image of an adult-to-be who may one day have
an important role to play, thus ignoring the young person's actual age and
uniqueness at that precise moment in time.
In other words, Indian youth - for that matter, all young people - face
perceptual, physical, age, property and socio-economic conditions that
leave them far more vulnerable to tribal, state, federal and societal
pressures than any other group in our societies.
Historically, First Nations had a much more cohesive status and our young
people were respected and often trusted with impressive amounts of
responsibility. In fact, sometimes the very survival of our nations
depended on our young peoples' abilities, knowledge and personal acts of
bravery and fortitude.
For example, think of the critical roles played by the twin boys Monster
Slayer and Born For Water in Dine tradition. They were called upon by the
community to slay a number of terrible monsters who had been ravaging the
Dine for some time.
Or think of the two young Lakota who went out on the plains to receive the
sacred pipe from White Buffalo Calf Woman.
What kind of family life, kinship system and community education had these
young people received that fully prepared them for such an incredibly
important set of responsibilities?
Since there was a time in each of our nations' histories where the
intuition, strength, vitality and knowledge of our youth played such a
crucial role in our survival as communities, why have our governments and
other institutions not been able to more effectively work to include the
voices and experiences of indigenous youth, and at all levels - in
education, politics, economics and cultural practices?
In 2002 the United Nations held the first-ever special session on children,
where the delegates, for the first time, actually listened to what young
people around the world had to say.
I suggest it is time that Native youth, First Nation governments and the
multitude of Indian interest organizations (e.g. the National Indian
Education Association and the National Indian Child Welfare Conference, to
name but two), get together for a similar gathering; and that out of this
should come an international treaty on the rights and status of Native
young people, and our obligations as parents, governments and societies to
The key here is that Native youth must be directly involved in this
treaty's construction, and not placed on the periphery and told to hold a
separate meeting. I prefer the idea of a multinational treaty because these
documents have always been of real spiritual, moral and political import to
If our children see that we are willing to work directly with them in
putting our understandings of their rights and status in such a sacred
covenant, maybe they would be convinced that we were serious about
listening, respecting and responding to their actual needs and desires.
I don't know whether such a document would have prevented Jeffrey from
doing what he did at Red Lake, but if our youth, political and spiritual
leaders and families can come together and begin the discussions and
conversations they once had on a regular basis - if we can find a way to
provide a better transition from an urban environment to a reservation
environment (and back again), and if we can resuscitate warrior societies
or comparable institutions that would provide an institutional cultural
context for young people to hone their sharing and defending skills - then
maybe we will be on a path towards finally alleviating some, if not all, of
the conditions that allowed Jeffrey to act out so violently against his own
We will, in fact, have begun a series of "new trails" that will lead our
nations into a brighter future because we will have embraced one of our
ancestors most important philosophical paradigms: we must always respect
the autonomy of every single young person by trusting each of them with the
right to exercise self-determination about issues of fundamental importance
to them, their families and their communities.
David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a Professor of American Indian Studies at the
University of Minnesota.