DEEP WOUNDS, SLOW HEALING
THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF THE RED LAKE HIGH SCHOOL TRAGEDY WILL BE MET WITH QUIET REFLECTION ON THE DAY LAST MARCH THAT BROUGHT SO MUCH GRIEF TO SO MANY PEOPLE.
His football-playing days are behind him and a limp has softened his lineman’s presence. But when 6-foot-3-inch Jeff May walks through the doors of Red Lake High School, he reminds everyone of a community that was, like him, grievously wounded a year ago. And which is, like him, still standing.
“It must be tough to walk through that door after seeing horrific stuff,” said Shane May, brother of the young man who has earned national recognition for his courageous actions during the Red Lake school shooting on March 21, 2005.
Jeff May, now 16, has become a symbolic figure on the Red Lake Indian Reservation of northern Minnesota. A total of 10 people died in two separate shootings, including assailant Jeff Weise, a troubled 16-year-old student and tribal member. May, shot in the face after struggling with Weise, was among the most seriously wounded.
He and his family have tried to put their lives back together. But it has been a slow, hard trial, much like the recovery of the community. While offers and contributions poured in, the band’s independence might have made it harder for outside groups to help. Perennial problems with school attendance and gang activity have resurfaced. Drug dealing, even more than the shootings, could be a leading issue in this spring’s tribal elections.
But that same independence may also be a reason Red Lakers persevere, cheering the Warriors boys basketball team in an uplifting march through the playoffs recently. They continue to draw strength from private traditions, including a series of family dinners this week that will honor those who were killed. Some families will give away the clothing of those who died.
“There’s still a lot of sadness,” said Stuart Desjarlait, the school superintendent. “This is going to take years to get over. … A lot of the students, I think they have to graduate, leave the building, get away from that.”
“I think there’s still a lot of fragility,” said principal Chris Dunshee. “I think both the staff and students are continuing to struggle. … We’re seeing some delayed effects in some people.” He said some students have retreated into gang activity as “a kind of protective device.”
The one-year anniversary Tuesday will be a quiet one. The high school will be open, but attendance will be voluntary and the day will be informal. There will be no communitywide observance on the reservation, but families are expected to have private dinners. The tribal council declared Tuesday a “Day of Remembrance” and has closed its offices so employees can attend private gatherings.
Dunshee and Desjarlait will not be there. Dunshee has gone on medical leave, and Desjarlait has permission to take a few days off. Neither is ready for the rush of memories.
“WE’RE TIRED OF ALL THE BAD”
Jeff May remembered everything. Unable to speak, he scrawled out his tale as he lay in a hospital in Fargo. He described how he turned a classroom table on its side for protection, tried to stab Weise with a pencil and wrestled with him before Weise shot him in the right cheek.
Throughout his hospitalization and his continuing rehabilitation, May became a living study in character: throwing out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins game from a wheelchair, warming the community with his cherubic smile, hobbling back into the reopened school and being honored as Reader’s Digest’s Hero of the Year.
As his mother, Jodi May, coped with Jeff’s critical injuries, including a stroke that paralyzed his left side, she was stricken by a stroke and heart attack. Shane, 22, shuttled between his brother’s and his mother’s rooms. He was named legal guardian of Jeff and two other siblings — 17-year-old Anthony and 10-year-old Ashley.
“I was up in the room with Jeffrey; I’d have to go down two floors to see my mom — then go back up and see Jeffrey,” Shane recalled recently, sitting at dinner with brother Jeff and their cousins. “At the time, I didn’t want to sleep, because I thought if I was going to go to sleep, I had the feeling something bad was going to happen again.”
Money has been a problem. Jodi May had worked two jobs before the shootings and her illness. Shane said he lost his job at a tribal casino because he needed to help care for his brother after he was released from the hospital. A payment from a tribal charitable fund has helped, as has their stepfather, but he said the bills have piled up.
“It’s kind of hard to hurt emotionally when we’re hurting financially,” he said.
Jeff has made remarkable progress, which is part of his inspiring story. But Shane says his brother remains permanently disabled.
In addition to the damage from the bullet, the stroke paralyzed much of Jeff’s left side. He now walks with a limp and has little use of his left arm and hand. Also affected were his vision and speech, which Shane May said is improving but is “still off a few beats.”
Jeff goes to school at 10 a.m., works on his range of movement during physical education class and attends regular classes the rest of the day.
“We tell people we’re doing good, we’re doing great, we’re doing all right,” Shane May said. “There’s a reason for that. Because it’s what people want to hear. … There’s just a lot of things that could be going our way now that ain’t going our way. There’s a lot of setbacks to Jeffrey.”
During a crashing thunderstorm this summer, Shane said, the lights went out in their home in Redby. Shane said he found Jeff wielding a butcher knife as if to defend himself.
“He kind of weirded out,” Shane said. “It was like a flashback-type thing.”
An incident at school last fall also upset the family. Anthony May was questioned about unfounded rumors that he was going to “shoot up” the school, according to Shane.
“Coming from the position we were in, we were very disrespected by it,” Shane May said. “It was just a big misunderstanding.”
Their mother is recovering in a Bemidji nursing home, and the boys visit her often. Jeff is learning how to be a normal teenager again, hanging out with his friends and playing video games with his good hand.
Shane tries to keep the tragedy “in the rear-view” and wonders if Jeff wouldn’t be better off in a neighboring school next year. Steady improvement from Jeff and a return home by their mother — possibly soon — are the family’s fondest hopes.
“We’re tired of all the bad happening to us,” Shane said. “We’re ready for the good times.”
“THANK YOU, STUART. I’LL DO THAT”
Fans stomped on the bleachers when an opponent tried a free throw. A drum group, replacing the traditional pep band, filled the gym with wailing native songs.
The Red Lake boys basketball team, their scarlet jerseys emblazoned with the Ojibwe word “Ogichidaag,” meaning Warrior, shook hands with elders and friends in courtside wheelchairs before going out and pounding the visitors from Roseau.
The game, held on the reservation earlier this month, was a reminder that new memories are crowding out the old. The Red Lake High School Warriors enjoyed a strong season, winning their first two games in the sectional playoffs and finishing the season with a 19-9 record.
But it’s hard to move ahead without looking back.
Desjarlait, the schools superintendent, said it has been hard for him to go to games this year, particularly because of the images they would invoke of Dewayne Lewis.
There was the outgoing 15-year-old on the bench, looking up to Desjarlait, motioning for the superintendent to tell the coach to put Dewayne in the game. There was Dewayne in the school hallways, bouncing a basketball, vowing to follow the superintendent’s advice to practice hard and stay away from drugs.
“Thank you, Stuart. I’ll do that,” Dewayne Lewis told Desjarlait, a week before he died in the shootings.
“I see that — it comes to me when I’m watching a game,” Desjarlait said.
But as the basketball success indicates, the school has soldiered on.
Security improvements have become part of the daily routine at the high school. Reconstruction of the damaged rooms is almost complete. And the public school district has had no problem asking for help.
Desjarlait signed papers recently for construction of 15 new high school classrooms, and 15 more for the middle school, paid for by $18 million in state funding approved last year. And he appeared at the Legislature to seek an additional $55.4 million for other improvements.
He and Dunshee said the district’s chronic problems with absenteeism have not gone away, despite a strong showing when school opened in the fall. But Desjarlait said he hopes for 82 high school graduates this year — down from 92 a year earlier.
“To me, success is seeing them walk across that stage,” he said.
The school had a rash of bomb threats during one two-week period, Desjarlait said, and two students were prosecuted. He said gang activity has again become a concern, even though the behavior is prohibited in the schools.
Dunshee suffered a heart attack a month after the shootings. Other staff members recently sought and received medical leaves. Counselors are keeping closer tabs on students who appear to be having troubles.
Desjarlait said he has been working through his own memories of that terrible day, and has written a lengthy narrative as part of his own therapy.
It begins with his secretary saying, “Somebody’s got a gun at the high school,” includes his march through the hallways of the middle school and into the adjacent high school, toward his fallen students, and ends when he sat down and cried at home late that night.
He said his therapist advised him to step back from discussions about the anniversary and to take the day of the anniversary off.
“What I went through — I’m not ready,” he said. “I’m the first to admit it.”
“THEY’RE A PRIVATE PEOPLE”
Lake Bemidji beckons the visitor, its garish statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe adorning the lakeside visitors center. A half-hour north, Lower Red Lake reposes in solitude, an undisturbed shoreline colored by the spectacular sunsets that gave the lake its name.
Bemidji is a north-country crossroads, predominantly white but with a strong flavor of the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake reservations that surround it. Bemidji State University has an American Indian Resource Center that serves native students.
Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe language professor at Bemidji State, said Red Lake’s historic independence is a “double-edged sword.”
“That there has been plenty of sympathy and desire to help from outside people is true. But that it really hasn’t materialized is also true. In large part because Red Lake has said, ‘Just let us deal with it.’ ”
Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said Bemidji residents reached out to the reservation mainly through private collections taken up at their churches.
“They’re a private people,” Lehmann said. “… They tend to handle it among themselves.”
Robert Shimek, an enrolled Red Lake member and environmental activist in Bemidji, said the tragedy continues to underscore the importance of binding young native people more tightly to their culture, to make sure no one falls as far as Jeff Weise. He said the band and other groups have taken several major steps, including planning a new Boys and Girls Club on the reservation.
The issue of Red Lake’s sovereign solitude — along with reverberations from last March 21 — could crop up in tribal elections in May.
Among the candidates seeking to replace Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr. is Francis “Chunky” Brun. Brun’s son, Derrick, a security guard at the school, died in the shooting.
Brun, 71, who has a long resume of working in tribal government, is a somber, silver-haired man who believes the reservation must confront drug dealers and open itself to employers willing to create jobs.
“We have to remember some of the things handed down by our ancestors,” he said “But if we don’t have no jobs, we’re just in a quagmire of despair and little hope.”
For now, Red Lakers have to take solace in the happy moments, such as when Jeff May, wearing his broadest smile, approached superintendent Desjarlait in the school gymnasium a few weeks ago.
The soft-spoken young man told the superintendent about the award.
“I said: ‘I heard, Jeff. I was just waiting for you to tell me,’ ” Desjarlait recalled. “I said: ‘That is very good. That is something very, very worthwhile that you did … Be proud of what you did. It saved others.’ ”
“He kinda smiled and said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ ”
Jeff Weise, 16: Took his own life inside a classroom at Red Lake High School after shooting and killing a security guard, a teacher and five students and wounding seven other students. Also killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s female companion. Was prescribed the antidepressant Prozac after a suicide attempt in summer 2004. Wrote in an online forum frequented by neo-Nazis and admired Adolf Hitler. Had been tutored at his grandmother’s home for months because of problems at high school.
Daryl “Dash” Lussier Sr., 58: Paternal grandfather of Jeff Weise and a Red Lake police officer for more than 30 years. Lussier and his companion, Michelle Sigana, were shot and killed by Weise before the shootings at Red Lake High School. Lussier was a father of six.
Michelle Sigana, 32: Longtime companion of Daryl Lussier; found dead in Lussier’s home. Shot and killed by Weise before the attack at the high school. Sigana had just been hired as a cashier at Seven Clans Casino in Thief River Falls.
Derrick Brun, 28: Security guard was the first person Weise shot and killed at the high school. Credited with saving lives by confronting Weise, allowing another guard to shepherd students to safety. Brun was a former tribal police officer training to be an emergency medical technician. His 4-year-old daughter died in 2003.
Neva Rogers, 62: Red Lake High School English teacher from Shevlin, Minn., also in charge of the yearbook and student newspaper. Shot and killed by Weise. Remembered as a woman who loved teaching, singing, gardening and collecting cookbooks.
Dewayne Lewis, 15: Red Lake student killed by Weise. An outgoing athlete who could always be found playing basketball with his friend Chase Lussier. Celebrated his people as a grass dancer at powwows.
Chase Lussier, 15: Red Lake student killed by Weise. Father of an infant son. A serious student who lost his life after shielding a fellow classmate from harm.
Chanelle Rosebear, 15: Red Lake student killed by Weise. Played center on her school basketball team. A graceful shawl dancer who was preparing for a future powwow by beading her leggings.
Thurlene Stillday, 15: Red Lake student killed by Weise. An engaging storyteller and basketball player who was liked by her classmates. One of three victims from Ponemah, one of the most traditional American Indian communities in the state.
Alicia White, 14: Red Lake student killed by Weise. The eldest of seven, she often played the role of an additional parent and caregiver for her siblings. An Internet surfer, a cheerleader, a skier, a social butterfly and a participant in church activities and camps.
Jeffrey May, 16: Shot in the right cheek, fracturing his jaw; a bullet lodged in his neck. Suffered a stroke, which paralyzed his left side. He is back in school and continues physical therapy. May can walk without a cane now but still has some paralysis in his left arm. He lives with older brother Shane. May was named Hero of the Year 2005 in a national poll by Reader’s Digest magazine for trying to stop Weise.
Steven Cobenais, 16: The most critically injured survivor, Cobenais was shot in the face at close range, losing his left eye and suffering a severe brain injury. He returned to school in the fall and was fitted with a prosthetic eye in January. Cobenais attended the Jan. 30 meeting with U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger with his parents.
Ryan Auginash, 15: Shot in the chest, piercing his lung. With Cody Thunder, he led a group of tribal elders, students, parents and teachers into the school when classes resumed in April.
Lance Crowe, 16: Shot in the wrist as he tried to cover his face; shrapnel struck his chest. Crowe and 10 of his relatives were special guests of the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome in April.
Cody Thunder, 16: Shot in the hip. A bullet remains lodged in his body. Though he helped lead a group of tribal elders, students, parents and teachers into the school when classes resumed in April, Thunder has not returned to school.
Two other injured students were not identified.
THE KEY PLAYERS
Louis Jourdain, 17: Jourdain, the son of Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr. and a cousin of Weise, was arrested March 27 on federal charges connected to the shootings. After pleading guilty to making threatening interstate communications, he was sentenced Jan. 13 to no more than a year at a treatment center for juveniles.
Principal Chris Dunshee: He suffered a mild heart attack in April. Dunshee has been on medical leave since the end of January, when his cardiologist suggested he take some time off. He has seen a therapist and says some of his health issues may be related to post-traumatic stress disorder. Dunshee’s situation will be reassessed next month, and he intends to return to work.
Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait: In April, he was granted a 16-day medical leave to deal with stress after the shootings. He is at the center of the school’s rebuilding effort, including stronger security and better technology.
Tribal Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr.: His son was convicted of making threatening interstate communications in connection with the shootings. Floyd Jourdain has said his son learned of Weise’s plan beforehand and had tried to head off the killings. He is expected to seek a new term as tribal chairman in May’s election.
U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger: In January meetings with family members directly affected by the shootings, Heffelfinger revealed that as many as 39 people had some knowledge of Weise’s plan to assault the high school before he carried it out. He resigned in February to return to private law practice in the Twin Cities.
No community observance is scheduled on the Red Lake Indian reservation. Families are expected to have private dinners to honor individual victims.
The Red Lake Tribal Council passed a resolution declaring Tuesday a “Day of Remembrance,” recognizing “the immense loss to the entire Red Lake Nation.” Tribal offices will be closed so employees can take part in family events. The resolution states: “Such resources as the band would have spent on a community-wide feast” will be distributed to victims’ families.
Superintendent Stuart Desjarlait said classes at Red Lake High School would be optional and informal Tuesday, and there will be a meal at the school for those attending.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has asked Minnesotans to honor and mourn the victims of the shootings by observing a moment of silence and reflection at 2 p.m. Tuesday
The criminal investigation is finished. Only one person was charged in the case — Louis Jourdain, a cousin of Jeff Weise and the son of Tribal Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr. Louis Jourdain pleaded guilty to making a threatening communication and was sentenced to a juvenile treatment facility. Federal prosecutors said up to 39 people had some prior knowledge of Jeff Weise’s intentions but said none can be charged with a crime.
None has been filed, though a number of families are represented by lawyers and have filed notices that they may file wrongful-death claims. Lawyers for the Red Lake School District have met with lawyers for the families.
The Red Lake tribe will elect new officers May 17. Jourdain is expected to seek re-election but has not formally announced. Other candidates for chairman include tribal Secretary Judy Roy, former tribal official Francis “Chunky” Brun and former Chairman Bobby Whitefeather. Brun is the father of Derrick Brun, a security guard slain at the school.
RED LAKE WARRIORS
The boys basketball team finished the season with a 19-9 record, winning their first two games in the Section 8AA tournament before losing by one point to East Grand Forks on Tuesday night.
St. Paul Pioneer – March 19, 2006 – Jim Ragsdale
David Hanners contributed to this report.