In 2002, a group of drunk and stoned teenagers randomly beat a 48-year-old blind man to death on the northern Minnesota Indian reservation where I grew up. I decided it was time to go home, this time as a reporter. The forested, sparsely populated Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation had seen a surge of senseless deaths in recent years involving young people as either victims or perpetrators. Usually, alcohol and drugs were involved.
At the blind man’s funeral in the little village of Cass Lake, old friends told me that the place had changed since we grew up there in the 1970’s. There had always been poverty, and as kids we’d had access to alcohol and pot. But now, they said, the kids were snorting and shooting cocaine, OxyContin and methamphetamine. They were forming gangs and, unlike when we were kids, they brought knives and guns to their fights. Car theft, robbery and burglary, crimes we associated mostly with big cities back then, now touched nearly every household. Even the mayor’s car had been stolen that year—twice—out of his driveway.
The green house on Maple Avenue where I had been brought up—a white kid on a reservation so fragmented and disenfranchised that half the people are non-Indian—now had sheets of plywood over some of its windows. “People are scared,” an old friend said. “The kids are out of control.”
Returning to the Reservation
Photographer Jerry Holt and I convinced editors to let us move to the reservation and spend six months trying to understand how and why things had gotten so much worse—why, as nearly every statistic showed, the reservation had become one of the worst places in rural Minnesota to grow up.
We rented a house on the edge of town. I walked in the first night to find that someone had broken a window and rummaged around inside, apparently not finding anything worth stealing. “Welcome home,” said a cop who responded to the call. I told him I would have preferred a fruit basket.
Jerry and I were an odd couple. He’s a middle-aged black guy with dreadlocks, facial hair, and a bit of leftover drawl from his native Mississippi. I’m a middle-aged, clean-shaven white guy with a Fargoesque “you betcha” accent and closely trimmed hair. We sometimes joked to bemused locals that the hair was the best way to tell us apart.
Slowly at first, and then more and more as trust grew, people let us into their lives, homes and community. We spent hours and hours in schools, courthouses and at the local Boys and Girls Club, where kids sometimes used the donated computers to look up relatives on the Minnesota Department of Corrections offender locator Web site. We interviewed judges, social workers, doctors, educators, politicians and scores of kids and parents. We immersed ourselves in the mixed culture, going to meetings of city and tribal councils, pancake dinners and powwows, church services and sweat lodges. We met with dozens of tribal elders, always remembering to bring a pouch of tobacco—used in Ojibwe ceremonies and prayers—as a gift, to show our good faith. We searched cemeteries for the graves of kids who didn’t make it, whose lives and family histories we were reconstructing, looking for what went wrong.
To visit other lost Leech Lake kids, we traveled to distant prisons. At the St. Cloud penitentiary we befriended Darryl Headbird. He was serving 40 years for shotgunning his father to death as the man slept. Though only 14 when he did it, he was prosecuted and imprisoned as an adult. Darryl told us how his alcoholic mother had abandoned him and how he became a devil worshiper before deciding that his dad had to go. Darryl said he believed he might have fetal alcohol syndrome, though he’d never been tested.
At Cass Lake’s alternative school, we got to know Tara Hare, 16, daughter of an alcoholic, single mother. Tara herself was in the throes of a battle with addiction, violence and other destructive behavior. She’d already been through treatment three times. Her principal said Tara was “hanging by a thread.” We spent time in Tara’s home, joined family gatherings, and even attended one of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, with her permission and that of the other teens in the group.
Photos by Jerry Holt/Star Tribune.
Portraying What We Learned
The result of all our work was “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake,” a three-day series that appeared in Minneapolis’s Star Tribune in April 2004. In its opening scene, Darryl described how he prepared himself for murdering his father by beating their chained dog to death with a baseball bat.
Darryl’s story represented those Leech Lake children whose lives were lost, either to prison or the grave. Tara represented the Leech Lake kids on the edge—those at extreme risk, who could go either way. The common elements running through the lives of the lost and struggling kids were highlighted and explained: poverty, a family history of chemical abuse, family disintegration. These losses were placed in the context of older, more universal losses of land, culture and religion endured by their families and tribe, creating psychic wounds still echoing through the generations. An accompanying timeline detailed how the Leech Lake Ojibwe were subjugated and herded onto their reservation in 1855 and how during the next century the dominant culture proceeded to take back 93 percent of the reservation’s land.
The timeline further explored how large timber companies, railroads and white settlers flooded onto the reservation and took over, building dams that flooded wild rice beds and burial grounds, and leaving behind a polluted Superfund site on the south side of Cass Lake. Nearly all the reservation’s beautiful miles of private lakeshore had fallen into the hands of well-heeled white people, who are lately building opulent homes and cabins, often just down the road from jack pine-ghetto housing projects for Indians. Indian anger over aggressive logging and loss of land had boiled over in what was called an uprising in 1898, on Leech Lake’s Sugar Point. The exchange of gunfire with federal soldiers went down in history as the final battle between American Indians and the U.S. military.
Think about this for a moment: Here is where the United States finished its war against the American Indian. Here is a place, and a people, steeped in loss. Even the Indian name for the reservation’s most beautiful lake—Red Cedar—was lost. The new white power structure changed it to honor General Lewis Cass, a territorial governor who had fought wars against Indians.
I’d never studied this history before going back home to examine the youth problem. I now understood the roots of a lot of the anger, despair and dysfunction I’d seen there as a kid. My family was part of the usurpation, as unintended as it may have been. We’d moved to Cass Lake because my dad got a job in the single white-owned bank there. He also served for a time as municipal judge in the white-controlled justice system. To say I sometimes felt the backlash would be an understatement. I had to learn how to fight, and I still bear the scars.
Going back to see how the youth of Leech Lake got lost helped me come to better terms with my own difficult youth. For me the series became more than a project; it was also a reckoning.
Photos by Jerry Holt/Star Tribune.
Reaction to the Stories
Reaction to the series was swift and strong. In the first week I got hundreds of e-mails, and on the following Sunday, nearly all of the Star Tribune’s op-ed section was devoted to readers’ feedback. For weeks, Jerry and I were in demand as guests on talk shows and in classrooms.
The reaction was fairly evenly mixed. Many Indians and non-Indians alike felt it was powerful, unflinching journalism. But many others felt we focused too much on the negative, blamed the Ojibwe for their children’s problems, and failed to point out all Ojibwe people are doing to try to make things better. Many wished we would have balanced stories about kids like Darryl and Tara with stories about Leech Lake kids who are doing fine.
I was disappointed to see some of the most strident criticism come from the Indian studies departments of universities, which blasted the series for all the sins listed above and added that it failed to put the problems in historic context, saved the positive stuff for last, and perpetuated the myth of the Indian as a helpless, tragic figure. The comments of some of the professors made me wonder if they’d read beyond the headlines.
I was unapologetic. I reminded angry readers that the entire third installment of the series covered the good work Indians and non-Indians alike were doing to try to save the reservation’s kids. This is where we quoted elders who said reclaiming spirituality is the answer and others who said education is the key. The installment ended with a quote from a teenage girl who said the young simply have to choose a better path, as she had.
True, I said, two-thirds of the series defined and explored the crisis. But I argued that it would have been dangerous and irresponsible to seek some kind of artificial level of balance for that sad news. If we had matched each story about a child who was suffering with another story about a child who was not, we would have blunted the message, letting readers think that maybe things aren’t as bad as the statistics implied. We would have given readers an excuse to look away while more Leech Lake children died and went to prison.
On the reservation, where stores could not keep the series on the shelves even after the Star Tribune supplied them with hundreds of reprints, the response was about as mixed, but more intense. American Indian Movement founder Dennis Banks, a Leech Lake Ojibwe, led a four-day “We Are Not All on Drugs Walk,” in which several dozen people participated. I interviewed Banks and covered the walk. Schools had special assemblies to help children deal with the discomfort and shame of being so publicly labeled “lost.”
The reservation government scheduled a two-day public forum entitled “We Are Not Lost,” at the Palace Casino. Fliers said that forum was designed to emphasize the good that was happening at Leech Lake and “change the perception” created by the articles. I was apprehensive about going, but I never even considered staying away. I’d had my say. The critics now had a right to give me a piece of their minds and to ask me questions.
At the forum, attended by 200 people, something happened that from my perspective was wonderful and amazing: Although some of the 35 speakers complained about the series, the majority credited the stories with jolting many on the reservation into more honestly facing the problems underlying the high per-capita rates of chemical abuse, child removals, and crime. “If you want to change something, you have to have a sense of urgency,” said Randy Finn, an Ojibwe from Cass Lake. “It’s like somebody has relit that flame, and all of you are here today because of it.”
Mike Mosedale, who covered the event for City Pages, a Twin Cities alternative weekly, wrote:
“While the forum was launched with the idea that it would serve as a retort to the series’ central thesis … it morphed into something very different: a ritual of catharsis and resolve in which speaker after speaker relayed their own personal stories, insights and recommendations.
“Some people wept as they spoke. Others were frankly confessional. One woman described how her daughter was involved in the robbery and murder of a tourist from the Twin Cities. ‘A lot of us mothers and grandmothers have lost children,’ she said plainly. ‘We’ve got to quit hiding. We’ve got to deal with it.’”
When tribal employee Patsy Gordon called me the day after the series ran, she was tearful. “Your stories hurt a lot of people,” she said. “How could you do that to us?” But after she attended the forum, Gordon wrote this in DeBahJiMon, the tribal newspaper:
“I heard and witnessed that many feelings have changed from anger to even thanking Larry Oakes, that he brought a wake-up call to Leech Lake. … I myself came away from this forum with the thought of, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could recover from all of the drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, etc., and go on to be a living example of how you can come back from the depths of despair?’”
Ojibwe activist Bob Shimek told Mosedale:
“This is a real part of our history—the good, the bad, the ugly, and we have to own it. It was about frickin’ time someone wrote this story.”
Toward the end of the forum, tribal elder Wally Humphrey stood, facing the crowd, and spoke, at one point pointing a gnarled finger at my white face. “Let’s not forgot that the man who wrote these articles grew up here,” he said. “He is one of us.”
Waves of relief and gratitude swept over me as I wept in my motel room that night. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.
Larry Oakes is a reporter with the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “The Lost Youth of Leech Lake” is available online.