The two worlds of native American teens

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a seminar on "contemporary world events" at Lame Deer High School, Cinnamon Spear, a senior honors student, joins her fellow Cheyenne Indian classmates in dissecting the question: "Why did this happen?"

Why did an apparently troubled Ojibwe teenager last week go on a shooting rampage on the Red Lake Indian Reservation 800 miles away from this land of windswept prairie and ragged coulees?

Cinnamon, who like many young people living on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, has survived her own share of personal challenges and tragedy. She lives with extended family. Her father is dead and her mother battles with alcoholism.

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Initially, she was in disbelief when she heard that an Indian student, 16-year-old Jeff Weise, had shot and killed 10 people in a community not so different from her own. Similarly, Weise had lost his father to suicide and an alcohol-related auto wreck left his mother seriously debilitated.

"After Columbine, I remember my friends and I saying, 'Well, there goes some more crazy white kids with guns killing each other.' But the shooting in Red Lake brings it closer to home because it happened in a place we understand," Cinnamon says.

While the events at Red Lake are being discussed on reservation communities across American Indian country, tribal leaders warn that drawing general conclusions about what happened there is both unwise and potentially misleading.

On both the Northern Cheyenne and nearby Crow reservations in south-central Montana, however, it is how young people have learned to persevere through difficult teenage years that provides another window for understanding the sense of shock gripping the Ojibwe.

"A lot of our kids grow up with the same kind of hardship that confronted that poor young man in Minnesota, and a lot of them have access to guns, but they don't turn to violence," says Sara Young, a Crow Indian and former grade-school teacher who now coordinates educational outreach and mentoring programs on reservations for Montana State University. "Maybe we need to pay closer attention."

Teenagers in Indian communities inhabit two parallel worlds, Young says. There's the universal realm of "teenagedom" that is common to American adolescents everywhere, involving coming-of-age struggles and trying to find one's place in the world.

Walk down the locker-lined hallways at high schools in Lame Deer or Lodge Grass and Hardin on the Crow reservation and you encounter the music and dress of the hip-hop culture, replete with flirting boys and girls, peer-group cliques, and whispers about parties offering the temptations of alcohol and drugs, such as methamphetamine, a growing problem.

But beyond that common reality, Young says reservation kids live closer than most American teens do to tragedy. On many reservations, unemployment rates surpass 65 percent; poverty is high; so is alcoholism, physical abuse, single-parent households, teenage pregnancy, and the odds of young people, especially males, dying before they reach 30.

At Montana State University in Bozeman, which has a sizable contingent of native students, Young says it's rare for a semester to go by without a student having to return to a reservation for a funeral. "Death is always there when you grow up in a culture of extended families," she says. "Grieving is a regular part of our lives but it's also made us better survivors."

Young is critical of the national media which, within hours of the shooting, descended upon Red Lake's insular society and then seemed perplexed when the community turned inward upon itself - as most tribes have learned to do in response to horrific events in frontier history.

"Red Lake touches a chord in Indian country," Young says. "Suffering the loss of children anywhere is tragic. But when you live in small closed societies like we do, our children are our profoundest expression of hope and it's especially painful when one of our own does something like this."

Young, herself a mother and a grandmother, says it is the extended family structure of native clanship and blood lines which functions as a vital support network. Routinely, grandparents provide a seminal role in sheltering young people against pain and suffering. That's partially why Weise's turning a gun on his own grandfather before bringing his rage to school is so stunning to teachers and students here.

At Hardin High School on the Crow reservation, Sariah Two Leggins wrestles with that issue. Grandparents are revered in native America as keepers of tribal tradition and the glue that holds families together. "It's a pretty severe thing to murder a grandparent," Sariah says. "I respect our elders because ... there's so much we can learn from them."

A shy student athlete, Sariah battles powerful peer pressures, but her abstinence from drinking has won the admiration of her parents and her guidance counselor Janice Singer, who has worked in the local school system for 26 years.

"Sariah doesn't realize how important she is as a role model," Ms. Singer says of the star basketball player who wants to major in American history at college next year.

At Lame Deer High School, Cinnamon, also drug and alcohol free, is a 4.0 student and a standout runner and volleyball player. Her dream is to become a doctor and return to the reservation to practice medicine.

Boys have it tougher, Singer says. They have fewer positive role models and, in addition, the better-paying jobs on the reservation often are held by women.

But despite the negative aspersions sometimes cast on native communities, guidance counselor Singer mentions small things that give her cause for optimism.

Until fairly recently, kids at Hardin High were reluctant to engage in traditional dances at school events because it wasn't considered hip. Then last year a group of freshmen stepped forward and now the kids in the grades following them are embracing it with gusto. "The younger students are starting to be more proud of their culture," Singer says.

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