Tragedy At Red Lake

Matthew Barkhausen
March 24, 2005

The school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation is truly a tragedy. On Monday, 16-year-old Jeff Weise shot and killed five students, a teacher and a guard ? while asking one of them if they believe in God ? at Red Lake High School in Minnesota. About 14 people were wounded, and his grandfather and his grandfather's wife were also found dead. Weise killed himself.

This particular incident has been called "the worst" school shooting since the Columbine incident here in my home state of Colorado, which ended with the deaths of 12 students, a teacher and the two teen shooters. Things like this leave people to wonder about many things: "How could this happen?" and "Why?"

I feel depressed that such a tragedy occurred. At the same time, I also feel frustrated and angry. My father saw the brother of the killer on the news the next morning. He said the young man seemed stunned and couldn't believe this had occurred. I'm sure the family of the killer will have a hard time accepting that he did such a thing. My anger stems from my realization that things like this can be prevented if people seriously consider alternate reasons for such tragedies.

Weise's father committed suicide, and his mother was not around to affect his behavior because she is suffering from brain injuries as a result of a car accident. His grandfather, whom he is also suspected of murdering, raised him. We may never know what the relationship between them was like. But because of what he did, it seems that nothing he said had an effect even if he encouraged him to value life. The other causes of Weise's actions could be problems that have existed in American Indian communities since the Reservation Era began in 1890.

Weise's father committed suicide and Weise also ended up committing suicide. The suicide rate of American Indians is higher than it is for any other ethnic group in the United States and Canada. The teen suicide rate is astronomically higher for Indians than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. or Canada. One reason is the desperate poverty in most American Indian communities. It is hard to convince yourself you can succeed when there is a lack of opportunity and upward mobility. Another reason is rampant substance abuse, which breeds domestic violence and child abuse, which leads to the last reason for the high rate of suicide and the lack of value for life among so many Indian youth. They have been made to hate who they are.

Weise is suspected to have written on a neo-Nazi message board about his obsession with Nazis and Adolph Hitler, using the names "NativeNazi" and "Todesengel." In a July 19, 2004 post, he reportedly wrote that both his parents were Native American, "though from what I understand I also have a little German, a little Irish, and a little French Canadian in my blood as well." But he grew up on an Indian reservation with an Indian population of more than 5,000 and with only 91 non-Indians. Even if it is true that he had some degree of blood from other ethnicities, he was Indian. Weise appears to have been a very confused young man, struggling with his identity.

The Libertarian National Socialist Green Party issued a statement on its site Tuesday confirming that Weise posted messages there. The writer of those messages assumed two user names: NativeNazi and "Todesengel," which means "Angel of Death" in German. "I stumbled across the site in my study of the Third Reich as well as Nazism," says a March 2004 post. "I guess I've always carried a natural admiration for Hitler and his ideals, and his courage to take on larger nations."

Another 2004 posting says, "As a result of cultural dominance and interracial mixing, there is barely [sic] any full-blooded Natives left. Where I live, less than 1 percent of all the people on the reservation can speak their own language."

"Under a National Socialist government, things for us would improve vastly," it continued. "That is why I am pro-Nazi. It's hard though, being a Native American National Socialist, people are so misinformed, ignorant and close minded, and it makes your life a living hell."

The group issued a statement on its site Tuesday confirming that Weise posted the messages. The Libertarian National Socialist Green Party "refused to wring hands over a 'tragedy,' instead pointing out that such events are to be expected when thinking people are crammed into an unthinking, irrational modern society," it said. NativeNazi said he was a member of the Ojibwa tribe and "both my parents were Native American, though from what I understand I also have a little German, a little Irish and a little French Canadian in my blood as well."

The idea of Weise's joining a neo-Nazi group is not as surprising as it may seem, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. The center tracks hate groups. "Believe it or not, we run across this all the time," he told CNN. "We've found Jewish Nazis, gay Nazis, blacks who wanted to be white supremacists. The reason it isn't so unusual ? these are powerless people to whom images of powerful people are appealing."

Todesengel said in a May 2004 posting: "Because of my size and appearance, people don't give me as much trouble as they would if I looked weak ... I'll defend myself if someone tries something but other than that I'm a peaceful person." His last posting was made in August 2004, according to an archive search.

In his posts, Weise demonstrated a number of things. For one thing, just as Potok suggested, the images of powerful people were appealing to him because he obviously felt powerless. What I find bizarre is that Weise and others who are not part of the "ideal" race that Nazism strives for are willing to overlook Nazi racial ideology as it applies to them. Weise tries to embrace this ideology by advocating racial purity among his own tribe and people. But a real Nazi would still believe Weise and his people to be "untermenschen" or subhuman, as was the classification given by Nazis to anyone who didn't meet their criteria for belonging to the "Master Race."

At the same time, I think his comments demonstrate his disdain for being Indian despite his arguments in favor of racial purity among the tribe ? first by accepting Nazi ideology, and second by desperately grasping at the notion that he had non-Indian blood. If Weise was interested in Nazism and admired Hitler, he had to be familiar with their racial ideology and had to know that he, being an Indian, would not have fit in with the Master Plan of Nazism. So he argues he has blood from more "pure" European races.

Weise's politics are also interesting. It's not uncommon for people in poor communities to embrace a socialist ideology. It has often been argued that traditional indigenous societies were essentially socialist, but rather than forced redistribution of wealth equally among the population, wealth was shared and redistributed freely. But Weise's political beliefs appear rather schizophrenic. On the one hand, he argued for tribal and racial purity ? and advocated a Native American separatist movement - on the other, he admired Hitler and the Nazis, ignoring he fact that if the Third Reich had overtaken the United States, American Indians would have been among those in the gas chambers and concentration camps.

I am still left to assume that, seeing the condition of his reservation, with 40 percent of people living below the poverty line, maybe Weise thought Indian was the last thing he wanted to be. This attitude is not uncommon, nor is it new. It began with the Boarding School Generation of the late 1800s.

Indian children were forcibly taken from their parents and shipped off to boarding schools around the country where they were beaten for daring to speak their own language. They were made to believe that being Indian was a bad thing and that absorbing into mainstream American (i.e. white) society was the only way they could cleanse themselves of the horrible reality that they had been born Indian. Their hair was cut and they were to speak only English. In many cases the children suffered physical and sexual abuse. When they tried to find work in cities, they were not accepted, because no matter how brainwashed into thinking they could be white, they were still just "dirty Indians" in the minds of white America. Some tried going home to their reservations, but they'd lost touch with their language and culture and were not accepted there either. They turned to alcohol and often raised their children with the same psychological and physical abuse.

I think the only remedy for the self-hatred that exists among so many American Indian youth is the resurrection and revitalization of Indigenous traditions. Traditional socio-political organization, methods of conflict resolution, and knowledge of language and culture is the only way I can see this will ever end. Some Ojibwe have suggested a traditional cultural explanation for what happened to Weise, in yesterday's the Denver Post. Gayle Downwind, who taught Weise in middle school, said there's an Ojibwe word ? "maji-manidoo" ? for the evil spirit that can consume a young person.

"When you lose your spiritual connection to God," Downwind said. "The darkness of earth can overpower you.'"

I can only wonder how things might have turned out differently if Weise had had a traditional Ojibwe upbringing, was well-acquainted with his native tongue and traditions, and belonged to one of the many societies that traditional Ojibwes still have for young men to give them a proper understanding of their place and value within their society.

For the families of the victims one can only hope that somehow, with time and the support of living relatives and friends, that their motional pain and wounds will heal, and no more bloodshed or suicide will follow this tragic event.