Most of you probably know about the two teenagers from Parkland who committed suicide last week. If not, here is a link to the story.
In 2005, when one of the lesser known mass school shootings in the US took place on the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota, I wrote this piece about the phenomenon of school shootings and their connection to suicide .
If you’re not familiar with that 2005 incident, here is a link to the recap posted by Minnesota Public Radio on the 10-year anniversary of the shooting in 2015.
Wish I could say I can’t believe these thoughts are still relevant in 2019, but they are.
So I’m just going to leave this right here.
Surviving Suicide: Leaving Red Lake
I haven’t thought about them in years—the faded scars on my wrists. They’re scarcely visible. They’ve had thirty years to heal, and were never very deep in the first place. They were no serious attempts, just desperate pangs of poverty and “troubled youth.” Most kids I knew growing up had them—horizontal rungs of razor-thick scars from botched, half-hearted “suicide” attempts—so they didn’t set me apart as much as they sealed my membership in a sort of a scar clan of adolescents bouncing from group home to youth home to foster home to detention center to the county jail and back. We all had them, and their status increased with their subcutaneous depth: the deeper the scars, the better the clan member you were. No one ever told us that if you were serious about suicide, you had to slit your wrists vertically—and even if they had, I doubt we’d have dared, but this information is readily available on the internet now. We weren’t serious about suicide. We were serious about surviving it—and these slits were our screams. More often than not—or shall I say more often than now?--our screams—faint though they were--were heard.
So I’m no stranger to suicide. It was an annual ritual for my mother—and her attempts linger more tenaciously in my memory than my own. She was more the drugs-cause-cramp than the razors-pain-you type, so the suicidal spectacle always included some sort of staggering, stumbling down-drunk, sedative-induced stupor, with trips to the emergency room and subsequent days or weeks spent in the psychiatric ward. One by one, her children were removed from the home and placed in foster care. To my childhood mind, suicide and alcoholism paired with mom like baseball and apple pie for the average American kid living behind a white picket fence with big brass door knocker on Mainstreet. Just before my mother died a little more than a decade ago, I summed up her life as one ongoing suicide attempt in a story called “Death Wish”—and I have tried to live life for both of us. Whatever else I may or may not have inherited from my mother, the “death wish” and the “alcoholism” were not things I accepted as genetic propensities, and I set out to be the last in the bloodline to participate in these pathologies. Transcending the poverty was the unintended consequence of that determination.
I have succeeded: she had an 8th grade education, I have a PhD. She was on welfare; my IRS bill is twice what her welfare payments were. She shopped at Payless, I shop at Saks. She binged on booze, I binge on books. She got hauled off to jail as often as I hop on a plane to fly to a conference; she took trips to rehab, I go to Germany where I attended college and I lived and worked for nearly ten years of my life; or to Africa, where I have friends and have traveled extensively. She worked as a waitress, I work as writer, translator, editor. She scrubbed floors. I write books. In my academic writing, I have addressed issues of suicide, homicide, genocide, and holocaust—one of my projects included translation of source documents from the Nazi era into English. So, like Jeff Wiese, I spend a lot of time studying Nazi "culture." I have translated speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg and other lesser Nazi "luminaries." How a kid like that might get sucked into Nazi propaganda is no mystery to me, and the notion of a “NativeNazi,” as abhorrent as it may seem to anyone in possession of only cursory, stereotypical knowledge of Nazi “culture,” is not at all far-fetched to anyone as “intimately” familiar with Nazi “ideology” as I am.
But I also work with kids. “At risk” kids. Most of them Black or mixed race—like me: I am of Ojibwe descent and trace my origins back through five generations to the Mackinac Bands of Ojibwe and the Little Traverse Band of Chippewa and Odawa Indians. My early childhood experiences have been instrumental in my work with youth, but I am nevertheless acutely aware of several major differences in what I faced as a child and what kids today are up against (all of which is compounded exponentially for children confronting the added burden of “life on the rez”): we didn’t have guns, we didn’t have crack-cocaine or crystal meth, we didn’t have the internet, and we didn’t have Prozac—instead, we had a flawed but not yet completely decimated social service network that was more or less on our side. We had adults who listened and threw us lifelines. It didn’t seem to us that the society around us was plagued by the suicidal pathologies of rampant corruption and government criminality, paralytic public apathy, decadent wealth contrasted by debilitating poverty, an indefatigable commitment to lies and a permanent passion for war. As dismal as our past and present may have seemed, we looked toward a "brighter future." Back then, there were still signs of sanity—the deadlines were tempered by lifelines.
So it’s no wonder that the recent school shootings in Red Lake have become something of an obsession for me. As soon as news of Jeff Wiese’s internet postings was made public, I began scouring the lines of his prose. Barely had I read two pages before I said to myself, “As twisted as it may be, this is pretty sophisticated stuff for a 16-year old Rez kid. I’ve had students in college classes who couldn’t write as well.” In one of his many cries for help, the words: “Fuck it all.” Well, I thought, the vocabulary certainly hasn’t changed since I was the fucked up adolescent writing my rage on notebooks and folders, in thwarted attempts at “fiction” and “non-fiction” alike. I read his writings and what comes to mind is: Indian Killer. Yeah, in a different world this kid might have become the next Sherman Alexie. Instead, he will make his mark in history as another “Columbine Killer.”
And the internet and mainstream media have been abuzz with heart-rending, hand-wringing attempts to address the parallels, to dissect the sociological underpinnings of the tragedy and come up with some plausible explanation for “why.” I wonder about this question and how blind people must be to so much as pose it. The answer is obvious to me, and the more pertinent question is why it took so long for the phenomenon to hit this particular community. The fact that it finally did ought to be cause for concern—for all of us, not just for Indian country.
All things considered, I think of myself today as a reasonably “balanced” person. Over-educated and over-qualified for most of what I do, I am politically active, socially aware—I write letters to congress and the press on issues that matter to me and never hesitate to help others less “fortunate” than I. I am a compulsive blogger, mostly because I know that there is very little room for my perspective in any “legitimate” print media and because, like Jeff Wiese, I am a “natural born” writer, not a natural born killer.
Transcending trauma and “troubled youth” has required that I develop solid survival strategies. And yet, when I look out at the world around me, it’s hard even for me not to despair as the current administration drives this country to ruin; the future, even from my ivory-lined perch overlooking the University of Chicago campus—looks rather grim. And most of my friends and colleagues—none of whom are members of the “scar clan”—agree. Today, we survive suicide by calling each other to talk, and it doesn’t matter that their passing bouts of suicidal depression derive from problems plaguing places like Columbine and mine more from those facing places like Red Lake. We save ourselves with landlines and cell phones, an occasional email shot off between classes and conferences: “Hey, how you holding up?”
The fact is: the world we live in today is almost unbearable for anyone with enough time to dwell on it. That’s why most people, in their bids for a modicum of sanity, choose instead to look the other way--to busy themselves with the banalities of doctors’ appointments, committee meetings, class syllabi and university curriculum.
Until Monday, when Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain’s son was implicated in the incident at Red Lake, we might have satisfied ourselves with the “troubled youth” explanation for the tragedy there. But, if indeed this kid, too, was involved (and we don't know that yet), this is a much more serious matter. By all accounts, Floyd Jourdain was a good father, a model parent. And we might draw the same conclusion about the Columbine kids’ parents and the parents of children in cities throughout the country who are screaming at us to pay attention.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have to scream quite as loudly to get attention. People listened to the superficial slits on our wrists. Now, though, it’s not enough for a kid to take his own life: he’s got to take others down with him—go for the gusto, go for the gun. And the decibel level is deafening. Boom. Boom.
Our children—red, white, and black--are screaming bloody murder, and what they are saying is: there is something profoundly wrong with the world you are living in and the world you are leaving us. The social symptoms to which children are responding may differ: in Columbine, the vacuity and meaninglessness of opulent suburban wealth; in Red Lake, the debilitating effects of poverty and the long-term aftermath of genocide and chronic, intergenerational post-traumatic stress--but the response is the same. Either way, what the kids are saying is: WE DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE WORLD YOU HAVE CREATED. Money—the excess or the absence thereof—plays a role in these incidents, but the bigger issue is moral bankruptcy. Our children are telling us that we have cashed in on their future and they do not want to live in a morally bankrupt world spinning out of control with depravity.
We, the people, are committing collective suicide.
The children know this and want no part of it.
We are the ones who are surviving suicide—they’re the ones succumbing to it. We are sacrificing our children to moral degeneracy and they are refusing to go in silence.
“Verlassen,” the German word for “forsaken,” “abandoned” was one of Jeff Wiese’s internet tags. At the end of his horrific story “Surviving the Dead,” a plaintive call to attention: “Any comments? Any at all...”. Not a word. Deafening silence in cyberspace.
How many more of our children have to leave us before we begin posing the hard questions and offering solutions that even the children can accept?
While putting together this piece, I stumbled upon this documentary by Keith Rock. I couldn’t find a place to embed it in my own narrative, so I’m putting it here.
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