A Message to Journalists about the Red Lake Tragedy

And so it begins. The grieving people at Red Lake have closed the town and shut out the media, and the reporters and camera people are now stuck in a small northern Minnesota town desperate for copy. It is an unseemly reality, but it is part of the lethal truth of an omnivorous news culture.

One of these reporters — a man well-aware of the avaricious nature of the media beast — saw my commentary in one of the papers in which it has run, and he contacted me asking what he needed to know to do this right.

I have no good answers about how to do it right, but I know how to do it wrong. So I told him.

Here are the thoughts. I think they bear reflection


First of all, go to my blog at Kentnerburn.com. Read the piece called The Circle. That will give you the context and a feel for the rez. Interesting that the news media has not shown any willingness to work with a piece of that length that probably would tell them more about the reservation than all the sound bites they will ever get. But I understand the constraints of time and space, and the inherent limitations of parachute journalism.

Also, pick up a copy of my book, Neither Wolf nor Dog. You need it now.

Let me now say a bit about why you can’t get on the reservation. The problem, as I see it, is partly spiritual and partly sociological. Let’s deal with the sociological first — the issues I alluded to in my commentary.

A. The media never leaves the freeway unless there’s an explosion. We in rural America know that. Now there has been an explosion, and here you are. The Indian people have been trapped for too long between the stereotype of wise bearers of earth- knowledge and poverty-ridden drunks who are victims of a great social tragedy.

In between, the humanity is lost.

The people at Red Lake know, both instinctively and from long experience, that you cannot get to know them in this time. You will have to contextualize them somehow, and they have seen all the permutations and combinations of white contextualizing that exist. Whatever you write will be wrong, because it will have to have a hook. Goth, poor reservation, disillusioned youth — pick your hook. Whatever it is, it will be an objectification, and they want no objectification in this case. You can’t tell their story right, so they want you to go away. Plain and simple.

B. They probably have never dealt with the reality of a media feeding frenzy. They have no sympathy for your need to get a story, or the harsh realities of your job and your field. Right now, your attempts to get on the reservation are the metaphoric equivalent of sneaking around the house of a murder victim, trying to peer in the windows while the people prepare the bodies for burial. Their land is their home; it is not neutral space on which their lives are played out.

Red Lake is one of only two or three closed reservations in the country. That means the land is held in common, and it has never been allotted into checkerboards. Apart from the a few parcels of land sold to the railroad in Redby, the Red Lake reservation land has never been part of white America. White America moved in around it. Their reservation is what remains. They have closed the door to their country, just as you would close the door to your home if a tragedy occurred inside. This is crucial: the reservation is not a piece of land given to the Indian people on which to live; it is the last small patch of indigenous land that wasn’t taken away. It is NOT America in a spiritual sense, though it is, politically. Right now this is a spiritual issue.

As to the spiritual:

A. All Indian people know about healing because all Indian people know about being wounded. They are better at healing a community than any white people I know, because their spirituality is pervasive even if it is not evident. Right now they are allowing the elders to heal them as best they can, probably using the old ways that were given to them. My guess is that the spiritual leaders of the community are bringing everyone together and calling on traditions that run deeper than any of us can imagine. It is not yours to observe, not yours to understand, not yours to analyze or broadcast. This is a family; it is not simply a community. There is a big difference. A family heals and grieves in its own way, and it doesn’t do so under public scrutiny. Your witness is neither needed nor desired.

B. Remember, these people are a remnant. America is growing, it is adding people, bursting at the seams, a great burgeoning ever-creative entity. The Red Lake people are few, and this made them fewer. Their children are the most important thing they have, and that is why they care so deeply about them and their education. They need to keep the remnant strong so they can perservere and maybe even grow. Their children, to a person, are now wounded. This is not about numbers, it is about spirit. They must find a way to heal the spirits of these children so that they can go on. That must take place in the quiet of their extended family on the land that is their birthright and spiritual nourishment.

I could go on, but this should get you started. This whole thing just breaks my heart.