Home Fires

His Home and Native Land

Red Lake is like Cuba: proud, poor, troubled, and independent.

Bloodshed puts Red Lake on the map—again
Bloodshed puts Red Lake on the map—again

On Monday, Jeff Weise, a 16-year-old Red Lake Indian band member, shot and killed 10 people, including himself, on foreign soil in the middle of the United States. Strange as it may seem, the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota is a foreign country, even if the violence there is all too familiar. The reservation, slightly larger than 880 square miles, is mostly water. The land there is a thin strip of swamp and lowland that cups lower Red Lake.

Bloodshed is what put Red Lake on the map. When my Ojibwe (Chippewa) ancestors arrived in Red Lake in the mid-18th century, the area was occupied by the Dakota. The Ojibwe orchestrated a surprise attack on a flotilla of Dakota canoes heading into the lake from a small tributary. The Ojibwe fired from the steep banks onto the canoes below. The Dakota fell into the water and swam for shore, but none of them made it. There were so many dead that their blood stained the water red far out into the lake, and the Ojibwe named the river Battle River and the lake Red Lake: Miskwaagamiwizaga’iganing.

The recent school shooting at Red Lake High School is another kind of violence at another time, and once again bloodshed is putting Red Lake on the map—as a modern nation with a distinctly modern problem. This time the violence was intratribal: Weise killed his own people along with, one must imagine, his own demons.

Unlike most other reservations in the United States, Red Lake was not created by treaty, even though in later years it was whittled down by congressional act. Most people, by now, have been reminded that reservations are sovereign nations with their own forms of governance, their own constitutions, and their own citizenship criteria. What most people don’t know is that during the treaty-making process, Indian leaders gifted the land to the U.S. government, which then deeded it back to the tribe in perpetuity. So, while most Indian nations are sovereign, that independence is tainted by contact. Not so Red Lake. Since it was not created by treaty, it has never been outside Indian control.

Likewise, when the federal government passed the Nelson and Dawes Acts in the late 19th century (which made most reservations open to development, private land ownership, and paved the way for capitalists and lumber barons to dispossess the Indian owners), Red Lake’s leaders rejected the proposition and maintained that all land on the reservation should be held in common. As a result, non-Red Lakers working on the reservation these days live in “The Compound,” a strange suburban subdivision encircled in cyclone fencing tipped with barbed wire.

In the early 20th century, when the federal government once again tried to dissolve and diminish Indian control of Indian land, this time through the passing of a law that gave states criminal and civil jurisdiction on the reservation, Red Lake said no—even though that meant they lost the majority of their funding for schools, hospitals, roads, and police protection. The reservation then built its own schools, paved its own roads, and built its own court, police station, and hospitals. Red Lake has always been Indian land. The people there know it, and they act like it. If you’re not born there, it is hard to make it your home. Red Lake is the reservation equivalent of Cuba: proud, poor, troubled, independent, never dominated by the United States, and indescribably beautiful.

The landscape, what there is of it, is dominated by lowland hardwoods—elm, ash, maple, and basswood. But the real landscape is liquid. The lake is the center of everything. Red Lake is a wide, shallow basin with sandy shores all the way around, and it is as open to inspection and as hard to interpret as the people themselves. As often as I go to Red Lake, and as many friends as I have there, the lake and the communities around it reserve a secret part of themselves that none of us who are not from there will ever see.

Red Lake is the least American place in America, yet it, too, is now victim to a very American and very modern kind of violence. Red Lake has always been distinct and troubled and free, all at the same time. But the shooting proves that to live in isolation does not mean that you’re immune to influence. If anything, Jeff Wiese’s decision to open fire on students at the Red Lake school was a testament to how connected he was—to the world, to violence, to Columbine and Rocori. He was not isolated. But perhaps that’s the paradox: What Weise experienced as a young Indian man was a completely connected kind of isolation.