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Outside Media Won't Understand Red Lake Story

by Kent Nerburn

on media coverage of Red Lake tragedy

(PNS) OXFORD, England -- I awoke this morning to the leafy richness of an Oxford University spring day, far from the cold confines of my northern Minnesota home. I am here across the pond with a group of students from a small Minnesota university who are having their lives changed by a series of brilliant lectures and a city of timeless civility.

But as I sit here, another group of students from the Red Lake reservation near my hometown in Bemidji, Minn., are also having their lives changed. But those changes are coming at the hand of a student who walked through the hallways of a high school where I once taught and aimed a gun at the teachers with whom I once worked and the children of parents with whom I have shared tables and friendship.

It is a sad and tragic and story, made all the more poignant by my knowledge of the people, the reservation, and the land on which this all took place. I wish there was something I could do.

But I cannot reach across to my friends; I cannot be there to share the grief of the Red Lake community that I have grown to know and love. What I can do is reach out to all of you in your cities and homes and commuter trains and ask you to watch.

Watch as the journalists and TV reporters fly out from their home cities, land in Minneapolis, catch a commuter flight to the small airport in the forests of Bemidji, and drive their rental cars 30 miles north through the pine and poplar to the Red Lake Reservation. Watch them as they go to the small convenience store, interview a few folks, and push their way as near as possible to the school building that sits on the gravel parking area near the edge of the great northern lake that gives the reservation its name.

Watch them go into the tribal offices, try to interview the tribal chairman, a young man with a dream of making his reservation a better place, and then scurry back on the dark country roads to their hotels in Bemidji and where they can issue dispatches about a student caught in a culture of poverty and hopelessness on a rural reservation.

It will all be quite earnest and at least partially true. But it will not get to the heart of the matter. It will not show the love and sense of family that is at the core of the reservation. Nor will it will reveal the unique sense of grief that fills a culture where the drum is the metaphor for community -- when the drumhead is struck in one place, the whole membrane shudders and the sound reverberates everywhere.

What it will do, I'm afraid, is reduce this tragedy to a sociological event. "Rural reservation" is carte blanche for journalistic speculation about social problems and cultural hopelessness.

This Red Lake story is hidden beneath two layers of mythology and misunderstanding that pervade contemporary American culture: "rural" and "Indian reservation." In each lies a series of expectations and misconceptions that obscures the truth of events and makes what takes place there something "other" than the workaday affairs of our urban and suburban lives.

Watch, now, and see if that mythology and misunderstanding obscures the truth. I know Red Lake. I know those kids. They are just like my students asleep in their beds here in Oxford, just like your children brushing their teeth and packing up their books down the hall from where you are sitting and reading this.

It was Sitting Bull, the great Lakota chief, who said it best: "Come, let us put our minds together to see what kind of life we can create for our children."

Those children in Red Lake are your children. Hear their cries and the cries of their parents as if they were your own.

Kent Nerburn is author of "Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder" (New World Library, 1994). He is founder and past director of Project Preserve at Red Lake High School on the Red Lake Reservation. The Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Des Moines Register have run versions of this article

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Albion Monitor March 23, 2005 (

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