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Jeremy Olson, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published March 22 2010

Red Lake sees pain, progress years later

RED LAKE, Minn. – Three years after the shootings at Red Lake High School, Ashley Lajeunesse visited the grave of the gunman – the boy who killed her best friend – to forgive him.

To let go of hate. To try to move on.

Lajeunesse knew what it was like to be raised without a dad. She had that in common with the shooter, Jeffrey Weise, and she sympathized with the turmoil of his upbringing. More importantly, she knew her lost friend, Alicia White, would want her to forgive.

Lajeunesse smoked, then placed a carnation and a cigarette at Weise’s tombstone.

As she walked away, she felt sick. She thought of Chase Lussier, who had pushed Lajeunesse to safety after the 16-year-old Weise killed a school security guard, broke into their classroom and opened fire. She thought of Neva Rogers, the English teacher who prayed to God for help before Weise shot her.

And Dewayne Lewis. And Thurlene Stillday. And Chanelle Rosebear. And Alicia.

All were killed in that classroom – shortly before 3 p.m. March 21, 2005.

“I felt like I had betrayed them,” she said, “for forgiving him.”

Five years to the day after the shootings on the reservation that left 10 dead and seven wounded, there are signs of progress in Red Lake. The tribe is adding jobs with forestry and propane ventures, an expanded casino and the resumption of walleye fishing. It is tackling domestic violence and child maltreatment through the Family Advocacy Center. And its schools are offering more counseling and support such as a day care so teenage parents can earn diplomas.

But the healing and recovery is very much unfinished. The second-deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history had a compounding effect on Red Lake, which has a proud, sovereign history but also a long struggle with violence, poverty, substance abuse and disease.

The story of the Red Lake shootings “is not a single event,” said Dr. L. Read Sulik, who directs chemical and mental health programs for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. “It’s all the aftermath that occurred as well.”

Many in tight-knit Red Lake were witnesses to the shootings or relatives of victims or the shooter. Then there were rumors of accomplices, and accusations against Tribal Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr.’s son – who eventually served time in juvenile detention for threatening e-mails he exchanged with Weise.

A fleeting initial federal response didn’t help, leaving the traumatized in Red Lake to care for the traumatized at a critical point one year later.

Sulik was so concerned that he organized psychiatrists to provide counseling in Red Lake two years after the shootings. Lajeunesse was a 15-year-old freshman at the time of the shootings. Now 20, she has a 3-year-old daughter. She works for Red Lake Housing and plans to earn a degree in carpentry this fall.

Drinking was her first solution after the shootings. She quit for two years when she became pregnant and gave birth to Sierra but started again as the fourth anniversary approached.

After a long night drinking at the house of friends March 18, 2009, she got into a car with a friend, who fell asleep while driving. The car careened off Minnesota 89, toppling a utility pole and disrupting power in Red Lake for three hours.

After hospital treatment for head wounds, Lajeunesse knew she needed help. Instead of skipping counseling, she started going regularly.

Many in Red Lake took years to talk about the shootings and seek help, said Darrell Auginash, a Red Lake member and minister whose nephew, Ryan, was among the wounded. Auginash has mentored a few victims, taking them on bike rides or fishing trips to restore joy and normalcy to their lives.

“You can’t really run away from it,” he said. “It’s going to be there. The goal of grief work is to remember without hurting. If you’re still hurting, there’s still some work to be done.”

The melting snow reminds Ryan Auginash of the days surrounding the shootings. The change in seasons also brings fresh pain in his lungs, which still carry shotgun pellets. Auginash heard the first gunshots and went to check the hallway when he was hit.

Retelling his story to school and law enforcement groups has been therapeutic. Auginash plans to study criminal justice at college soon. The thought of becoming a lawyer and helping Red Lake appeals to him.

School shootings like this can happen anywhere, but Red Lake faced unique challenges to recovery – in part because of its independence and isolation. Tribal members were overwhelmed by the media attention and uncomfortable with outsiders offering help.

The federal government sent volunteer counselors, but they were surprisingly idle as the distrust or the freshness of the trauma kept many tribal members away. They were just starting to build trusting relationships when they left. Some were sent to Hurricane Katrina.

“Everybody left,” said Dr. Albert Allick, who shortly thereafter became the staff psychiatrist at the federal hospital in Red Lake. “Red Lake was abandoned at a critical point.”

After he began working full time on the reservation, Allick found many patients were dealing with the trauma of the shootings on top of prior mental disorders, addictions or family problems.

The anniversary is difficult. Allick said problems among his patients increase in March. Sulik said the anxiety builds as people see March 21 nearing on their calendars.

“The date of the event creates this flooding of memories,” Sulik said. “It serves as such a powerful trigger.”