Thursday, March 24, 2005

Leaving Red Lake

It has been 36 years since I last saw Johnnie Beaulieu. Flickering in and out, his face comes back to me, like a bird across the water. Like the radio reception in the woods near Red Lake, Minnesota.

I see Johnnie's face now because it wasn't all that different from Jeff Weise's. The kid who killed nine people, including seven at Red Lake Senior High, before shooting himself. Johnnie, if he's still alive, is pushing 50, which is a lot older than it sounds to you and me.

I see Johnnie's face now because some of the stories profiling the victims in yesterday morning's paper lack photos, even the obligatory out-of-date school pictures or out-of-focus snapshots that get dug out for this sad purpose. Could it be in this media-saturated culture, where cameras are disposable and cell phone cameras are a standard accessory, there were simply no portraits of the dead?

Well, yes, you could imagine that if you'd seen Red Lake. Not just the school, but the government-supplied prefab houses back in the woods and all the rest.

During Christmas vacation, 1968, I was part of a small group of anthropology students who took a field trip to Red Lake Indian Reservation. We were a diverse crew, including a Hungarian professor, a South African, a Chicago black, a New York Jew and a kid from Grand Rapids, Minnesota — the one person who should've known better — who spun our college station wagon into a snowy ditch.

The principal personally introduced me to a class of middle schoolers because my long hair didn't conform to the dress code. I'd gotten a waiver, he explained, because I was in a play back at college and needed the long hair and vandyke beard for the part of Kit Carson (in Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life.")

One mischievous kid looked at me and said, "Didn't Kit Carson shoot Indians?" This was Johnnie.

I can't claim to be an expert based on a few days at Red Lake so long ago. But I remember the elder's tales of being sent away to boarding school to have their language and Indianness ground out of them. I remember one teacher, the first Red Lake native to come back to teach, talking about how the students in the class would not volunteer to answer to my questions. To show you knew the answer was putting yourself above others, and that was not done.

He introduced me to a high school student who was considering college. She was bright and Homecoming beautiful. He was encouraging her by introducing her to college students like me, but we were not like her, he said. He wasn't sure if she'd go, and if she did, if she'd persevere. Leaving family, the tribe, the rez was difficult, and most came back — if not for good, then again and again. Despite the poverty and the lack of jobs. Here they could be Indian.

We went to a high school basketball game. The kids were thin and undersized, but reasonably skilled. They'd never play in college, but for now this was one way they could affirm themselves, one place they could succeed. Their uniforms, individually sewn by family members, were all slightly different. (This past season the boy's and girl's teams from Cass Lake-Bena, another predominantly Indian school, finished well in state championship tournies.)

We did not get to some of the more remote parts of the reservation. Even today, the online interactive maps come up blank when you search for Redby and other villages up there.

But most places I went, I met the irrepressible Johnnie.

On my last day at Red Lake, he gave me an enameled medallion he'd made in art class, strung on a chain. A poor college student, traveling light, I had nothing to give him in return.

"Just come back," he said. "White people come here all the time, but they never come back."

"I will," I promised. I wasn't like other white men.

It has been 36 years since I last saw Johnnie Beaulieu.

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