Grand Forks Herald.com
EXCLUSIVE: The Red Lake Nation
Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain talks about the year that's passed since a horrific school shooting dropped his people into the national spotlight
By Dorreen Yellow Bird
April 3rd, 2006
Herald staff writer
Red Lake Tribal Chairman Floyd "Buck" Jourdain Jr. invited Herald columnist Dorreen Yellow Bird to sit down with him recently and talk at length about the March 21, 2005, school shooting and its impact on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Their hours-long discussion represents what we believe to be the most in-depth media interview with Jourdain since the shooting.
March 21, 2005, what some are calling the worst day in the history of the Ojibwe people in Red Lake, Minn., a young gunman killed nine people and then took his own life. Floyd "Buck" Jourdain Jr., chairman, was at the helm of the tribal government as the tragic events unfolded. He tells, for the first time, his story.
Jourdain lived most of his life in the Little Rock community, one of four districts on the 806,000-acre Red Lake reservation. The reservation is settled among the white birch bark aspen and sweet maple trees that crowd the shores of one of the largest lakes in the region. Misk wagami-wazaga-iganing, or Red Lake, named for its scenic sunsets, lazes quietly under a coat of melting ice waiting for the summer sun to peel back the cold white and expose hungry walleye.
Near the edge of the big lake stands an old building that houses the tribal government and the post office. Jourdain was born 42 years ago in that very building when it was an Indian Health service hospital. When you leave the humble tribal headquarters and turn left, the modern Red Lake High School stands just across a short area of bare ground from the headquarters, providing an easy view of students coming and going from the high school.
It was at that school in the middle of Red Lake that 16-year-old Jeff Weise, a Red Lake member and student at the high school, came with guns in hand and hate in his heart. In that instant, the Ojibwe people were catapulted into national and world headlines. They would hold a place in history as the school with the second-largest number of students killed in a shooting.
"There was no way anyone could foresee the March 21 shootings," the tribal chairman said. The school was as well-prepared as any school in the state. They had uniformed security guards, cameras and a system for emergencies. Even though they weren't armed, two security guards did their jobs above and beyond what was expected. One was killed, and the other was able to alert the rest of the people in the building, he said. "They did everything they possibly could to avoid trouble at the school."
Even before March 21, and early in the Jourdain administration, the Tribal Council had begun a two-year assessment of social issues, never anticipating that this evaluation might include the magnitude of a tragedy that was to come. The assessment emphasized tribal programs, education, law enforcement, courts and tribal finances.
Jourdain, who was involved in youth programs prior to his election as tribal chairman, talked about the role of tribal leadership in nurturing young leaders. Tribes, he said, are in an era of gaming chairmen and corporate councils that place a lot of emphasis on building a bigger and better casino and creating more jobs, yet they are "cutting kids down from rafter" and drug dealers are running rampant. If you look at the entire spectrum, there were areas in which the reservation was lagging, he said. He wanted to change that.
"The shootings were the worst nightmare the tribe could imagine," the chairman said. Unfortunately, a lot of that evaluation and restructuring was put on the back burner as a result of the shooting.
"We went into crisis mode. We had the world's eye on us, and we were trying to see past a backdrop of 10 people losing their lives," he said. That deadly March 21 marker changed their focus to the needs, safety and mental health of the Red Lake community, Jourdain said.
The community was in mourning. In a closed community such as Red Lake, which guards its sovereignty jealously, tribal members know everyone on the reservation or they are related to each other. They needed privacy to mourn their looses, the chairman said.
Unfortunately, the tribe was overwhelmed by the hundreds of reporters and journalists who came to the reservation. The media, he said, didn't respect tribal boundaries, and few understood the meaning of sovereignty or what it meant to be a closed reservation.
The media essentially said, "Who in the hell are you to tell us where we can or cannot go?" They pressed hard for access to the homes and families of the victims some slipped into funerals and wrote of the tears and pain. The passport they wielded was their right of a free press, Jourdain said.
Holly Cook, a tribal member and lobbyist in Washington, D.C., came home to assist with the media. The tribe needed a strategy to deal with this army of huge transmitter trucks and media descending on the reservation. They needed a strategy to help the Red Lake community maintain its privacy while they tended to their families and prepared for funerals.
It was going to be a very disruptive and chaotic time, he knew. The tribe tried to make it as painless as possible for the people, Jourdain said, but it was painful to even look into the next day and it was unbearable to think about what laid ahead. The media and the tribe didn't see eye to eye.
During the crisis, Jourdain said he was told a Red Lake woman was having a particularly difficult time with the deaths. So, the chairman drove to her house to comfort her. It was like other times when tribal relatives and friends gather around those who are hurt or mourning, he said. As he visited with the woman and her family, he could hear the whomp, whomp, whomp of a helicopter. People standing outside or standing beside their cars looked up and saw the giant machine over the tops of the trees near the house.
Someone yelled, "It's the media." Everyone started running. Some jumped in their cars and drove off. Others ran for cover in the house. He couldn't help but smile at the commotion the media caused.
The media became an enemy.
Guilt And Blame
As the council tried to maintain the business of the government, the magnitude of the shootings overwhelmed some of them. One councilman grieved, "Have we failed our kids? Where did we go wrong? All of the things we have here, yet we still failed our kids."
"Money and things aren't always the answer," Jourdain said. "You can't throw money at a problem. There are so many things and programs that you can apply for right now. The council just talked about a healthy-marriage grant program. I guess it teaches people how to be married. I wonder, he mused, what the next grant would be: How to properly get divorced? You can apply for money for everything under the sun."
A mother in the community came to him during that time. She told him, "We've failed our kids. We have our own agenda, our jobs, casinos and all the things we do as adults and all the things we do for ourselves, but somewhere along the line we've forgotten to save time for our children. Now look at what happened."
"I am a younger chairman," Jourdain said. "I have a series of advisers and people I rely on. I would turn to one of those people and see them in tears and weeping. Some were the strongest oaks I knew and they were just devastated and stunned. I would see in their eyes they were in shambles and seemed to be saying, 'Buck, help us.'"
It was a time, Jourdain said, when they did a lot of self-blaming and felt guilty because of the shootings. "We have very well-funded communities. We have prevention and treatment programs for drugs and alcohol, the schools have special education programs, psychologists, 'schools within a school,' so why did this happen? Those are the questions the tribe will grapple with for years to come," the chairman said.
Unfortunately, the crisis mode would only grow more intense as Jourdain himself was touched. His son, Louis, was charged in connection with the shootings less than a week later, on March 27. That left the chairman in a precarious position. He needed to be on top of what was happening. He was responsible to the community, yet he had a responsibility to his family.
Jourdain recused himself from any investigative process or any reports about the shootings because of the charges against his son. "I basically stepped aside and said I'm going to maintain the powers of the office, but I cannot be involved in anyway, shape or form in the investigations or anything that it entails unless of course, the council needs me, and then they will call me," he said.
It is evident that Jourdain is close with his family and his son, Louis. So, the following days would be particularly difficult for him. One of the frustrations the chairman experienced was Louis' image in the media. He was demonized, he said.
It was a federal government case against a juvenile. There are certain rights that all juveniles enjoy in the judicial system, and the federal government enforces them, Jourdain said. The same rules of law apply to any juvenile charged on a federal Indian reservation. "There was no privilege granted to my son," he said.
"It was implied," he thought, "that because he was the chairman's son, there was a special deal and special considerations. There wasn't."
The entire family was devastated by the arrest of Louis. "We were a normal family on the reservation. The kids went to school. They weren't in trouble. We worked and obeyed the laws. Now, our whole world was turned upside-down, broken and displaced," he said.
One day, Louis was a kid playing video games, and the next day, he's potentially going to prison for the rest of his life. He was extracted from the reservation without an opportunity for closure or an opportunity to attend funerals of loved ones and family members, and he was held in an adult holding facility, Jourdain said.
He said there was no way he could abandon his son because he said he knew he wasn't responsible for what happened at the Red Lake school.
"I know my son didn't use the Internet any more than any other kid and he used it as a form of entertainment, a chance to talk with friends, download music, go to sites and play games. He wasn't sitting at the computer talking about horrible crimes all the time. It was unfortunate that he had an enormous amount of discussion on the Internet and a very small amount actually was about anything of a violent nature, but that's the piece that was focused on.
"They said, 'Look at this. This is horrible. We need to charge this kid.' Later on, I think the government realized maybe we should have gone another route. We are finding all kinds of kids do this," Jourdain said in defense of his son.
Louis' brother and mother experienced a great deal of stress and depression as a result of the shootings and subsequent arrest of their son and brother. Louis' mother has migraine headaches, and one child is withdrawn.
Jourdain added his name to the candidates running for tribal chairman in May. It's going to be tough, an uphill battle, he said, but he owes it to his son, Louis. He needs people to know he believes in Louis.
Surviving The Year
How did Jourdain get through the year?
First and foremost, his strength came from the support and prayers of family and friends. Standing beside his desk in the tribal chairman's office, Jourdain took off his suitcoat and slipped into a black velvet beaded vest with symbolic richly colored flower designs covering the front. This vest was a token of appreciation from the Warrior Society and Veterans after March 21. About the same time, he went to Canada and the chief's from Long Plains First Nation reserve presented him with a Woodlands Ojibwe traditional chiefs headdress. He said other tribes around the nation have supported him, too.
Culture plays a strong role in the direction Jourdain has taken in life. He uses his Indian name Bezhig Nii Gaa Nii Gaabow (One standing in front) with pride. The Ojibwe culture has provided him an alternative. The culture has given him a purpose in life. It provides clan structure and a blueprint for the duties he would carry on throughout his life, he said.
Although he has not gone through the Midawin (Grand Medicine Society), he follows the teachings of its society. He also is a Sacred Pipe carrier and dances traditionally.
For him, being a pipe carrier means a responsibility to bear the burden of the people. It means communicating with the spirit world to ask for strength and good things for the people.
Jourdain was given his pipe by an elder of the community who was an elder and knew he would be passing on soon. The elder said "someday, you are going to need this pipe. It will help you if you burn and offer tobacco. This pipe will help you help your people."
Jourdain said he doesn't take the pipe out in public, but keeps it in the family.
Of the pipe, he said, there is a strict code of conduct and responsibilities for keeping it. That's why some people shy away from it. Some think they are not deserving of this sacred object. It's a huge responsibility.
On March 21 this year, the tribe wanted a quiet day without speakers, outsiders and especially the media. They closed offices and opened the school so people could come and visit each other. They provided food. The day was sunny, just like that day in 2005. This day was somber and quiet, but there were smiles and hugs, too.
It was a sad day because it marked the anniversary of the death of their loved ones and it was time to let them go.
"We are being tested, and we will be stronger for it," Jourdain said. "There are better days ahead, regardless of who is here in the leadership role. We can't go backwards because we've been there and suffered the worst possible fate of any tribe."
Reach Yellow Bird at (701) 780-1228,
(800) 477-6572, ext. 228;
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