Red Lake teen wasn't alone in his despair

Deborah Hastings
March 27, 2005

The obituary in the small town paper was heartbreaking: Chase Albert ''Beka'' Lussier, born Dec. 23, 1989, died March 21 at Red Lake High School. A freshman who played basketball and loved computer games.

Six paragraphs down, beside the photograph of a chubby-cheeked, smiling boy, came this sentence: ''He spent his time juggling life between his family and his son.''

A father at 15. Dead three months later. Shot with eight others by an alienated, despondent upperclassman who, at the end of his 10-minute walk through Red Lake High School, turned one of his guns on himself.

Staggering statistics

The deaths highlight the problems that American Indian teenagers have been quietly suffering in greater numbers than most adolescents: suicide, violence, depression and pregnancy.

By themselves, the numbers for the Red Lake Indian Reservation are staggering. A state survey conducted last year of 56 ninth-graders showed that 81 percent of the girls and 43 percent of the boys had considered suicide.

Almost half the girls said they'd actually tried to kill themselves. Twenty percent of boys said the same -- numbers about triple the rate statewide.

''I don't have an explanation for that,'' said Brenda Child, who teaches American Indian history at the University of Minnesota and grew up on the reservation.

Her cousin, 14-year-old Ryan Auginash, was shot in the chest during 16-year-old Jeff Weise's march through the campus.

She doesn't want to view the shootings through the prism of American Indian troubles. ''I see it as a problem of a young man who was deeply depressed,'' she said. ''Sadly, that can happen anywhere.''

Here, where the Red Lake band of Chippewa has lived in isolation on more than 830,000 acres in northern Minnesota since 1889, such things are not openly discussed.

For much of the week, they slammed the door on the prying eyes of television cameras and reporters who wanted to know why Weise shot his grandfather, a tribal policeman everyone knew as ''Dash,'' the man's girlfriend, and then drove to the high school entrance behind the wheel of his grandfather's police car, wearing his gunbelt and toting a shotgun. He opened fire at the front door, by the lone metal detector.

Funerals begin

On Saturday, the first funerals began for victims of the shooting in which 10 people died. Services for Weise's grandfather, Daryl Lussier, 58, and his longtime companion Michelle Sigana, 31, were attended by more than 100 police officers, along with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman.

Chase Lussier's funeral was also planned Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church.

Tribal elders have said little, as have residents. Some students have been more open, describing Weise as a depressed, friendless boy who talked of shooting people.

The Minnesota survey of Red Lake students said they assaulted other classmates and used more alcohol and drugs than other students across the state.

Nationwide figures show that American Indian teenagers commit suicide at three times the national rate; are involved in alcohol-related arrests at twice the national average, and die in alcohol-related incidents at 17 times the national average.

They are third-highest in teen pregnancies, behind Hispanics and blacks.

''My mother moved us off the reservation when I was very young. And I am very glad she did that,'' said Bill Lawrence, publisher of the Native American Press-Ojibwe News.

''The kids there come from drugs, alcohol, broken families, abuse,'' he said. ''Only the most gifted students can overcome this stuff. A lot of kids don't go to school. About 50 percent don't graduate. How do you go on after that? They're not qualified to get a job or go to college.''