A Day at Red Lake

Any place that houses dark memories — the scene of a crime, the site of an accident — has a strange timbre when it returns to normal. There is a residue of the scream that echoed so loudly over the place not long before. Such was the case on Red Lake when I went to visit several times in the past weeks.

You must understand that Red Lake is not a town in the way you might imagine. The reservation is a vast expanse of forest surrounding a great lake almost too large to see across, and the town of Red Lake is little more than a few low government buildings, a convenience store, a small hospital and fire department, and the school. All are spread out along a single road with a few small streets winding away from it back into the woods. The houses are set back either along these streets or on dirt driveways that cut off from them and snake their way into the trees. No house is much more than a clapboard box with wooden steps going up to the door. Most are set on patches of dirt, and almost none have garages. It is minimal living, and even those people who have good paying jobs with the government or the tribe or the school district live in this manner. It all comes down to which homes are kept up and have a simple linoleum graciousness when you enter, and which are of the “torn screen door” variety. No building anywhere rises above a single story. There are almost no curbs and no lawns. The forest dominates over all.

Most of the people are related, and the relationships are complex. Almost everyone who has a connection to the shooter has a connection to one of the victims as well. I had lunch with a friend whose sister was one of the EMT’s who picked up the victims and tried to keep them alive. One of the victims was her cousin. The shooter, Jeff Weise, was her husband’s cousin and a boy they knew well. For some, the connections were even closer.

Imagine, if you will, that your sister’s child picked up a gun and went on a shooting rampage. Your brother’s son was one of the people killed. How would you process this? You knew both the kids, you love both your brother and sister, you grieve for the death and hurt for the crime, and you know that you will all have to live within a few miles of each other for the rest of your lives. How do you find a suitable emotional response that is not wracked with dissonance? This is the dilemma so many Red Lake people feel these days.

Plus, there is the residue of the horror. You heard the sirens, maybe even the shots — surely the screams as the news spread among the houses and people ran toward the school to see if their children and grandchildren were among those who were killed. You were there as the small fire department and hospital tried to deal with the carnage. You watched as the ambulances flew up the highway from Bemidji thirty miles away, and then shot back down that highway with their lights flashing and sirens screaming. You did not know if your child was shot or maybe involved in the shooting. You did not know if this was the end of violence or just the beginning. Most of all, you had nowhere to run, because Red Lake, and only Red Lake is your home. Unlike non-native people, you could not pick up and move away from the memories. You had to remain and pick up the pieces, and you remain there still, trying to sort things out, trying to understand, trying to deal with grief and anger and sorrow, trying to make a life.

It is a hard, hard, reality. The school is back in operation, but the hallway where the shootings took place is shut down. Every day when you drive by, you know that the building you are seeing is forever marked with horror and blood, just as much of your history has been marked with horror and blood. The resonances run deep.

So, the people, naturally full of fun and humor, are somehow quieter. Life is back to normal, but there has been a death in the family. What is different is that the family is several thousand people large, and the death was caused by one of them. It will be years before the wound is covered over enough to start to heal.

I am talking with several groups up there to see if we can republish the two oral history books we did so many years ago, and about which so many of you have asked. They were entitled, “To Walk the Red Road,” and “We Choose to Remember.” They were done by the students at that very school in the very room where the shooter tried to enter. Perhaps, if we can put those books out again, the stories they tell of the elders’ childhoods and the old days on the Rez, will allow some of the people to jump past the scream that now echoes everywhere. I am not sure there is support for the project, but, if there is, I am going to pursue it. The good people of the rez need hope coming from anywhere, and the voices of their elders, telling stories of their past, may be just the place to begin.

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