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Deadly tragedy puts focus on Native youth problems

As the nation continues to look for answers to the deadly shootings on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, attention is turning to the problems and facing issues facing Native youth across Indian Country.

Statistics show that Native youth face the highest rates of school victimization and use alcohol, drugs and tobacco at higher rates than their counterparts. Native youth don't perform as well as their peers, drop out of school at higher rates than other students and often come from low-income families.

The situation at Red Lake is similar in many respects. Only 57 percent of students there finish high school, according to state statistics. Nearly 40 percent of families live below the poverty line.

And while a 2004 survey showed that students in one county where the reservation is located felt safe going to school, a high percentage of students -- particularly Native girls --- said they thought about committing suicide or had tried within the last year.

What causes these problems? According to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., it's the loss of tribal culture.

"The sad truth is, I believe, these kinds of incidents are evidence of Natives losing their cultural and traditional ways that have sustained us as a people for centuries," the leader of the largest tribe in the country said.

Entrepreneur Dave Anderson, who is Ojibwe from the Lac Courte Oreilles Band, took on some of these problems when he oversaw the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2004. Throughout his tenure, he repeatedly said that hopelessness and despair on reservations are to blame for poor student achievement.

"What we're doing now is not working," Anderson said in an interview shortly before leaving the job last month. He said schools, parents and tribes need to work together to instill a sense of success among Native youth.

Most of the nation's Indian students attend public schools on and off the reservation. About 500,000 are enrolled, according to the Department of Education. Another 48,000 attend Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

The public school district on the Red Lake Reservation includes a high school, a middle school, two elementary schools and an alternative learning center. There is no BIA institution on the reservation.

Jeff Weise, the 16-year-old whom authorities say killed nine people, including his grandfather, Daryl Lussier Sr., before taking his own life on Monday attended the Red Lake High School. Over 300 students are enrolled there and all are reported to be Native American.

Weise had been suspended from school last fall and again recently for allegedly stirring up trouble. According to a post attributed to him on a Nazi web site, he got into trouble in the spring of 2004 for allegedly planning to "shoot up" the school on the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birthday.

"But the school threat passed and I was cleared as a suspect, I�m glad for that," the post stated, written in a thread about "Native American Nationalists."

Weise also experienced a number of tragedies in his life. His father, Daryl Lussier Jr., committed suicide in July 1997 following a police standoff. His mother, Joanne Weise, suffered brain damage after a serious alcohol-related car accident and now lives in a nursing home.

He had been living with his paternal grandmother on the reservation and his recent fascination with Nazis and Hitler were well known. In press reports, other kids describe him as a quiet kid who dressed in dark clothing and admired the "Goth" culture.

Kim DesJarlait, Weise's stepaunt, told The New York Times that the "clues were all there" for anyone to see. "This kid was crying out, and those guys chose to ignore it," she told the paper in an interview. "They need to start focusing on their kids."

Reacting to the worst incident of school-related violence since Columbine in 1999, tribal leaders also sought to place attention on Native youth. They expressed shock and disbelief but warned that the tragedy should stir people into action.

"Our youth are one of our most precious resources and represent the future of our peoples," said Tex Hall, the president of the National Congress of American Indians. "We must work together to care for and protect this valuable asset."

Relevant Documents:
Minnesota Student Survey (2004)

Relevant Links:
Red Lake Net News -
Red Lake Nation -
Red Lake High School -