On Monday, March 21, Jeff Weise, a 16-year old student at Red Lake High School on Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation, shot and killed his grandfather, his grandfather's girlfriend, a security guard, a teacher, five students and finally, himself. Seven others were wounded; two of them remain in critical condition. By all accounts, it was the worst school shooting since the April, 1999, shooting at Littleton Colorado's Columbine High School. But this time, something was different. This time, we hardly cared.
The public and our elected leaders have largely ignored this tragedy. The media coverage pales in comparison to that of Columbine. Have we so quickly become numb and accepting of such terrible events? After Columbine, I distinctly remember that the shooting was the focus of nervous and stunned national attention for weeks and weeks, as it should have been. In 1999 President Clinton expressed his condolences and called for new gun control measures within hours of the Columbine shooting. This time, it took President Bush five days to say a single word about the Red Lake tragedy. In his first public statement about the Red Lake shooting, President Bush said that he and the First Lady would be praying for the victims. That's all well and good, but honestly, probably not too helpful. Not that President Clinton's "new gun control measures" helped the post-Columbine situation much, either.
But hey, it took a whole six years for such an unpleasant event to again slip into our national consciousness. And what can you really expect from a nation (and a government) that loves the Second Amendment more than it loves its own schoolchildren? Especially those living on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Because besides our obscenely insufficient gun control laws, the Red Lake tragedy has also pushed another oft-ignored issue into the public spotlight: the continuing plight of Native Americans, particularly Native American teenagers and young adults.
I've read several articles in which psychologists and child welfare specialists have noted that while they were obviously deeply saddened by Jeff Weise's actions on March 21, they were not at all surprised. Perhaps it was because of these alarming statistics published by The Washington Post: Young Indian adults and teens are twice as likely to commit suicide and three times as likely to die before age 25 than the general population. They are twice as likely to be involved in violent crime than are blacks, and two and half times as likely as whites. The Washington Post also stated that Indians (of all ages) are 670 percent as likely to die from alcoholism than members of any other group. Indians are also the poorest ethnic group in the nation, with an average income of roughly half that of the national average. On the Red Lake Indian Reservation, the statistics are even more sobering. A third of Red Lake teens are neither in school, employed, or looking for employment. At Red Lake High, 43 percent of boys and 82 percent of girls had thought about suicide. Twenty percent of boys and 48 percent of girls said they had attempted it.
There is obviously no excuse for what Jeff Weise did and his ethnicity should most certainly not be blamed for his actions. He was a mentally ill young man who had endured a painful childhood involving several of the problems mentioned above. As the Columbine shootings showed us, these tragedies are by no means defined by race, religion, or socioeconomic status. But Weise’s rampage should serve as a wake-up call for politicians, public officials, and truly, the entire nation. Native Americans do not need to be pitied, ostracized or ignored.
Over the last few centuries, the U.S. government has stripped the Native American population of its dignity, culture, lifestyle, self-determination, and self-preservation. I guess times have changed since the Trail of Tears, but maybe not as much as we'd like to think. The various levels of the government in this country can now excuse their purposeful ignorance of the plight of Native American by saying that they want to leave more affairs to tribal councils and governments, which is what many Indian leaders have wanted for decades and decades. Unfortunately, the United States has put most Indian tribes into such a terrible position that they are unable to solve the problems of poverty, crime, mental illness, and alcoholism on their own.
When we pushed our way westward, we certainly proved that we could take care of the "Indian problem" standing in the way of national expansion. Well, now it's time to take care of that "problem" in a different way -- by spending the money, resources, and effort to raise the standard of living on Indian reservations and to drop the staggeringly high rates of suicide, poverty, depression, drug use, violence, and unemployment. The U.S. government needs to actually "take care" of the Native American population the way it would any other segment of our diverse populous.
Maybe when we next watch the Redskins, Indians, Chiefs, or Seminoles play football or baseball, we should stop and think about the group of people -- the group of true Americans -- whose ethnicity we constantly slander and whose existence we constantly ignore.
And when the federal government says that they do not want to get involved in a "states' rights" issue -- as Native American-related topics are sometimes called -- it should recall its recent involvement in the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Last week, the same week in which Jeff Weise killed nine people and himself, Congress passed legislation that would allow the Schiavo case to be heard in federal court, thus interfering with the federal system and practically breaking the Constitution. The case involved a fight over the removal of the severely brain-damaged woman's feeding tube, and was firmly in the jurisdiction of Florida's judiciary, where the re-insertion of the feeding tube had been refused several times. But the legislation passed by Congress allowed the case to be heard in federal court, impinging on Florida's own judicial system. If Congress can overstep its authority and pass emergency legislation to try to sustain the life of a woman in a persistent vegetative state, then it can perhaps think of worthier causes to interfere in. And President Bush, who interrupted his vacation in Texas to return to Washington to sign the Schiavo legislation in the middle of the night, could have made an effort to recognize the tragedy that had stricken an already desolate community with yet another hardship.
Columbine was viewed as a "school shooting." Red Lake is being viewed as an "Indian reservation shooting," and is thus receiving a fraction of the attention it should. Can you imagine the reaction of the government if such a tragedy had occurred here at George Mason? It's a terrible, almost unspeakable proposition, but students at Red Lake High School know that such a scenario can be a reality. If it had happened here, in our prosperous, suburban, predominantly white, middle-class, clean, green, tree-lined city in the federal government's own backyard, you can bet that it would provoke an exponentially stronger reaction than the Red Lake shooting did. And that's just really, really sad.I
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