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Years of poverty and racism
Real cause of the Red Lake tragedy

By Nicole Colson | April 1, 2005 | Page 2

WHAT COULD drive a child to kill? That's the question residents of the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota are asking after 16-year-old Jeff Weise shot to death his grandfather and grandfather's partner, before killing seven people at Red Lake High School--including a teacher, security guard and five classmates--and finally turning the gun on himself.

This is the worst school shooting since the killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.

The media focused on the strange blend of neo-Nazi politics that Weise, an Native American, seemingly embraced. But the real source of such a desperate and terrible act--the systematic racism and poverty directed at American Indians--was barely mentioned.

The deck was stacked against Jeff Weise from an early age. His mother was an alcoholic and, according to Jeff's grandmother, would lock him out of the house. In 1997, when he was just 8, Jeff's father committed suicide after a standoff with police on the Red Lake reservation. Months later, his mother was left with major brain damage following a car accident, and Jeff was sent to live with relatives.

Internet postings show that Jeff became attracted to the idea of "racial purity" and expressed admiration for Hitler. Following his own suicide attempt, he was placed on the anti-depressant Prozac--which studies suggest can cause an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children. He had stopped attending Red Lake High School twice in the past school year because he became severely depressed.

Like much of the reservation system, Red Lake suffers from high rates of poverty, lack of funding and social problems. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, in 2004, four out of five students at the high school lived in poverty according to official government standards. Although poverty levels at Red Lake declined somewhat during the 1990s, more than four out of 10 Red Lake residents are unemployed.

This kind of poverty and systematic racism clearly took a toll on Weise. In Internet postings, he described the reservation as a place where people "choose alcohol over friendship," and where he could not escape "the grave I'm continually digging for myself."

Ojibwa Nation tribal elders have been understandably reluctant to allow the press to dissect reservation life. But as Sister Sharon Sheridan, principal of St. Mary's Mission School on the Red Lake reservation, told the Washington Post: "You can't condone what happened here, but you sure can understand it."

Ironically, the FBI says it has more than $200,000 in funds available for the "victims of mass violence" for those at Red Lake. Where were the government resources before this tragedy occurred? Native Americans have been the victims of "mass violence" for centuries--at the hands of a government that systematically sought to exterminate and imprison them on reservations.

George Bush gave new meaning to the word hypocrisy last week, as he used the media to talk about the need for a culture of "life" in the Terri Schiavo case. Yet it took him a full four days before he bothered to call Ojibwa tribal elders to express his condolences. Where was his concern for the lives of the children at Red Lake?

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