RED LAKE, Minn. – This place and its people have never warmed to outsiders. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa (search) have been here for more than a century, fighting among themselves and others for sovereignty in the cold, hard landscape of northern Minnesota.
They have closed ranks even more tightly since one of their own, a 16-year-old boy, shot to death his grandfather — a beloved, veteran tribal police officer — and then killed eight others, including himself.
"They are a very private people," said Sister Marina Schlangen, who has lived among the 7,000 Chippewa for the past 15 years as development coordinator for St. Mary's Mission (search), a school, convent and ministry on the edge of the flat, 880-square-mile reservation. "They live in private and they grieve in private."
Life is not easy here. The unemployment rate was estimated in the 2000 Census at 40 percent, but others, including Schlangen, who writes federal grant applications for the reservation, say it may actually be as high as 65 percent.
Many live below the poverty line, dependent on state and federal aid. School test scores rank among the lowest in Minnesota. Drug and alcohol abuse is a crippling problem; there is a treatment center for juveniles here.
The schools here are closed until Tuesday out of respect for the dead, who included five high school students. St. Mary's Mission elementary school, with an enrollment of about 70, is providing grief training this week for its teachers.
"People are so sad here," Schlangen said. "They're just hanging their heads. They stand together in solidarity, but people here just don't talk much. It's just not their culture."
Tribal police and reservation officials have distributed fliers warning against taking pictures or attempting to talk to residents about Jeff Weise (search), a lonely teenager who killed his grandfather, Daryl Lussier, 58, and the man's girlfriend, and then drove to Red Lake High in his grandfather's patrol car Monday and started shooting.
Along the reservation's main street Wednesday were signs warning, "Exiting this road constitutes trespassing." It is a road that cuts through vast stretches of leafless trees and snow-covered fields, winding along two frozen-over lakes dotted with the occasional ice house. There is a fishery here, and a casino, and a newly built law enforcement center.
Drive five minutes east, and the road opens to vast parcels of little more than winter forest. Single-wide trailers sit far back from the road at long intervals. Small clapboard houses painted in bright shades of green and red and blue rise against a frozen backdrop.
The nearest shopping center and grocery stores are 32 miles south in Bemidji, a hodgepodge of mini-malls, car dealers, chain restaurants and a mammoth Wal-Mart.
The Red Lake reservation was founded in 1889, and unlike other tribes, the Chippewa have kept their land intact and not sold off portions of it.
They protect their land from outsiders. In the winter of 2002, tribal conservation officers confiscated the plane of a pilot who landed on the frozen lower lake hoping to sample the phenomenal crappie fishing. It took him more than six weeks of negotiations, $4,000 in fines and $2,000 in legal fees to get his plane back.
But its people have fought each other through the years, culminating in a deadly uprising in 1979 over tribal leadership. Rioters burned down their own government buildings and the home of the tribal chairman. Two teenagers were shot to death.
The tribal court system was beset by allegations of corruption in the 1980s. Chief Tribal Judge George Sumner was shot to death in 1986 by Red Lake band member Gregory Good, who accused the judge of violating residents' civil rights. Good, who claimed self-defense, was acquitted of murder charges by a federal jury.
Like other tribes, the Chippewa erected a casino in the 1990s, hoping it would bring money and jobs. But because of its remote location, some 200 miles north of Minneapolis, the casino has not lifted them out of poverty. Red Lake and two other reservations are trying to build a joint casino in the Twin Cities area, but the effort is mired in political wrangling.
Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene knows the reservation and its residents well. "We're very deferential to their pride and their privacy and their culture," he said. "We are very respectful of that."
He added: "We will do whatever we can to help them. "If they want and need it. They are very private people. They are good people. That is simply the way they are."