On the morning of March 21, 2005, a young Red Lake tribal member opened fire on his fellow students at the reservation high school.
By afternoon, the national media had begun to descend on our small reservation town. We had lost nine of our tribal members and a valuable member of the high school faculty.
The world, it seemed, wanted to know all the particulars of our devastation.
My involvement that day began when officials from the White House and the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior learned of the shootings and needed to get in touch with the tribal leadership. As a senior public affairs adviser at the firm of Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, D.C., and a Red Lake tribal member, I represent the tribe on federal issues.
Among my Washington experiences over the last eight and a half years, I had the unique opportunity to work in the Clinton White House in 1997-98. I first served as an intern and then was brought on as a staff assistant to Lynn Cutler, Clinton’s point person on Native American issues in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. From this experience I knew, as a social issue, the kind of reaction a school shooting might receive by a sitting administration.
When I contacted our tribal chairman, Floyd Jourdain Jr., I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Chairman Jourdain asked if I could assist with the media, and I left on a flight back to Minnesota that evening. When I arrived at the Tribal Council headquarters the next morning, I began the task of coordinating the media that were arriving by the planeload. Having worked on the Gore/Lieberman, Kerry/Edwards and other political campaigns, in addition to serving as the director of Native American Affairs at the Democratic National Committee after leaving the White House, I had gained experience in working with the media along the way. While fulfilling this task in the busy and sad days immediately after the shootings, I also was able to utilize the assistance of very talented colleagues at my firm.
The ability to communicate a message was critical at this time, and the writing skills I developed during my time at St. Thomas were essential. And a familiarity with the expectations of a non-Indian audience, coupled with my experiences working with tribal communities around the country, made the process more manageable in an emotional and intense atmosphere for all of us.
While I wasn’t related to any of the victims, we all know one another in Red Lake and I knew many who had lost someone in their family. I felt lucky to have the opportunity to be helpful during this time – I think everyone, including myself, was in shock. That another school shooting had happened again, anywhere, was incredible. To have it happen on our reservation and to Red Lake’s youth seemed beyond belief.
Defining a Rich Culture Amid Tragedy
One of the challenges in working with the media during this time was the lack of interactive experiences on both sides. The national and international mainstream media had very little experience with reservation tribal communities. And our elected tribal officials had never been so besieged by the media.
There were easily 30 satellite and news trucks and dozens of accompanying reporters and camera crews set up in the parking lot of the reservation’s criminal justice center. In those first few days, the Tribal Council received hundreds of interview requests from around the world.
Chairman Jourdain was endlessly patient as he attempted to explain to members of the media the way things worked on Indian reservations – and Red Lake in particular. Red Lake is a sovereign nation. We write our own laws and enforce them, too. The State of Minnesota has no jurisdiction within our boundaries, although the federal government prosecutes major crimes (defined under the Major Crimes Act as murder, kidnapping, arson, robbery, etc.) and was on hand to do just that in Red Lake. The media did not have free rein to roam around as they pleased.
While Red Lake is usually a relaxed town, the Tribal Council’s limitations on the media were an attempt to protect tribal citizens and the victims’ families from media members who had become increasingly intrusive in a time of intense sadness. It was a one-way restriction though – only on the media. Those tribal members who did wish to speak to the media were free to do so. I think it was recognized that for the victims’ family and friends it helps to tell their story, and is a way to honor those they had lost.
This limited access and resulting media frustration had an effect on the public’s perception of our community and of our response to the tragedy. We were being portrayed as a poor, remote and violent community with little to offer tribal members, especially the reservation’s children. Local individuals who either were not from Red Lake or not even Native American were being shown on national television with their own commentary or depictions of our tribe and reservation. It was at that point the Tribal Council recognized that we needed to tell our own story.
Members of the Tribal Council – the highest elected officials on the reservation – in addition to some of the victims’ families, then met with countless members of the media to share stories of the victims, Red Lake’s schools and the tribal government.
The council also directed the media to meet with our spiritual leaders and other elders of the tribe so they could appropriately share with them information about our customs and traditions. We made it a point to discuss the ways in which our community is rich – our language, our lake, our land and our people living together.
The land is a basic tenet of our sovereignty, and we are proud that the Red Lake reservation lands have never been under the control of the United States. Our treaty was signed in 1888, and our tribal leadership has fiercely protected our land holdings and tribal jurisdictional authority ever since. The large reservation population ensures the practice of our language and traditional ways remain strong
Limits and Access
There were a number of ways the media coverage of this shooting was handled differently from other school shootings. First, by the evening of March 21, the Tribal Council had ordered all media restricted to the parking lot of the criminal justice center. Members of the Red Lake police force patrolled the entrance to ensure media compliance with this restriction. There were some members of the media who did not understand how they could be so limited. Could the Tribal Council really contain them? What about free speech? What about the rights of the media? The learning curve was steep and unpleasant for some, while others soon learned that common courtesy smoothed the way on the reservation as much as it does in non-Indian communities.
One member of a statewide television crew found out very quickly that we weren’t kidding around. After he was discovered knocking on doors deep into the residential area of Red Lake, he was swiftly escorted to the reservation boundary and deposited there – minus his camera equipment. After a couple of days of increasingly urgent and sincere apologies, his gear was returned but he remained unwelcome. All of this colored the coverage that was presented.
There also was a different portrayal of the "why" behind this tragedy. Was there a tendency to blame our poverty? Our remote Indian reservation? The way we cared for our children? Maybe. I think I was too close to the response. After reading several stories that painted such a grim picture, I very badly wanted to see something out there that told of our strengths as well as our challenges.
I do know that the Columbine shooting happened in a white, affluent and suburban community. Any parallels between the two shootings were not within these demographics – they were in the loneliness and depression of troubled youth.
I hope that, in the end, it was the victims’ stories that were told best. And as the survivors recover, their stories continue.
Considering the Stakeholder in Decision Making
In addition to the comprehensive technical background I received in management and finance, one of the ways my graduate school experience at St. Thomas helped me manage our media efforts is through a constant reference to something we covered late in the curriculum: stakeholder vs. stockholder mentality. The concept has stayed with me since we discussed it in my Strategic Management course.
I thought of the many times I have observed our tribal government in action. I believe they strive to consider the impact of their actions not only on the bottom line, but also on our entire community. A consideration of all who had a "stake" in a decision was taken into account, not just those with an interest in the financial picture. This could be one of myriad reasons why we as a tribe constantly struggle fiscally. But it is the right thing to do for us.
A Year to Grieve and Move Forward
I’ll always appreciate being given the opportunity to help our people during such a difficult time. I’ll never forget the grief of the families who lost loved ones or the terror that remained in the eyes of parents who had to wait for their children to come out of the school that day.
I understand that a stage of grief is to blame others, and you will see that reflected in Red Lake. Like most school shootings, a significant number of people knew of the shooter’s plans prior to his actions. The extremely close-knit nature of the reservation community has made this fact reverberate to a greater degree, and seems to make the recovery even more difficult.
So have we done enough in Red Lake to ensure this will never happen again? We may never know for sure. When I go home now, I see a heightened security presence and get the feeling people are still "looking over their shoulder" for any sign of trouble. On the positive side, there seems to be a lot of information out there about signs to look for in troubled youths, and there are significantly more activities available for our children to participate in.
I think things have changed in Red Lake over the last year … and I think things have stayed the same. Our poverty and struggles have suddenly become known to the world, and we’ve received generous offerings from all corners. Red Lakers were proud before, but we have an even stronger sense of pride about our reservation now. I know I do. Maybe it’s because we were forced to defend it.
About the author: Holly Cook Macarro continues to commute to Washington, D.C., from Temecula, Calif., where she lives with her husband, Mark, and newborn son Reg Temet.