The two worlds of native American teens
LAME DEER, MONT.
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?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.