Another Stereotype of the Month entry:
The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran the following series April 25-27. The Part One stories ran on the 25th, a Sunday, when the newspaper's circulation is heaviest:
May 2, 2004
Judging from the response, many Minnesotans were shocked by the Star Tribune report on "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake," written by Larry Oakes and photographed by Jerry Holt. The three days of articles and photographs focused on the violent, hopeless, drug-and-alcohol-drenched lives of too many young people on the Leech Lake Reservation.
But for anyone familiar with Leech Lake or many of the other reservations in Minnesota, the reaction wasn't shock; it was familiar sadness. While Oakes and Holt captured a snapshot of life at Leech Lake, the problems they documented have existed for a long time and in many places. Unfortunately, the drugs and violence have gotten much worse in recent years.
Let's get several things out of the way upfront: Many Ojibwe young people thrive, have good parents, study hard and go on to live productive, fulfilled lives on or off the reservations. Many good, dedicated people work against very long odds to restore troubled young lives on the reservations. Some white couples do a very good job as foster or adoptive parents of Indian young people from troubled backgrounds. And, in some instances getting a young person away from a corrosive environment on a reservation can save a life.
But the reality is that none of this is enough; it won't fundamentally change "the cycle" in which too many Ojibwe youngsters are caught.
The reality is that too many of them still are lost to suicide, to accidents, to murder, to drugs, to alcohol, to prison. The reality is that too many Ojibwe girls are parents before they are really grown. The reality is that too many Ojibwe young people can tell heart-rending stories of parents who are abusive, parents who have died or been killed, parents who live in an alcoholic haze or use what little money is available to score their next hit of their drug of preference.
Ask the elders at Leech Lake, White Earth, Red Lake, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac. They'll tell you.
The wise elders can tell you another reality: The way forward for these young people is to go back — back to the rich, life-sustaining Ojibwe culture from which they have been torn. Salvation for these young people means connecting with elders who care. Elders who will teach them about wild rice and show them how to skin a whitetail. Elders who will tell them the old Ojibwe stories and teach them the Ojibwe ceremonies. Elders who will teach them how to shoot and fish and make moccasins and snowshoes. Elders who will educate them in the use of native plants and medicines. Most important, elders who will reconnect them with Ojibwe spirituality, who will give them an Ojibwe soul.
Yes, Ojibwe young people need to study science and math, English and social studies. But they need to be taught within the context of being proud Ojibwe young people for whom their elders care deeply. And that context includes teaching them in ways appropriate to their culture.
Outsiders can help in many ways. Indeed, their help is crucial. But don't dare think about parachuting into Indian country and showing them how to fix things. They already know. Identify the right elders (who often aren't people who sit on the tribal council), and listen. Work to understand the Ojibwe way of talking about things; often what they don't say is as important as what they do.
Listen hard, to hear what they want, what they need for their young people. Then help them provide it, and keep providing it. Don't treat them as a semester science project. Be with them for the long haul. Be with them when they bury the young person they couldn't save and with them too when they celebrate a victory in the life of one they did. This is difficult work, truly one child at a time.
But it does work. In every band and every clan, there are elders who care, whom the children respect. The elders are the core; around them can be built a sustained effort to help every Ojibwe child grow up grounded in his heritage, confident of his ability to make his way in the world and excited at the possibilities before him.
Patricia Albers, David Chang, Brenda Child, Jean O'Brien-Kehoe and David Wilkin
May 2, 2004
We are deeply troubled by the Star Tribune's unfair and offensive series on youth at the Leech Lake Ojibwe Indian Reservation. These articles carried very dangerous implicit messages.
Larry Oakes and the newspaper editors portray Ojibwe people as a danger to themselves and their children. In almost all the articles, nothing good comes from the Leech Lake people themselves. Family members and parents are a danger to children, supplying them with drugs, alcohol and bad role models.
In almost all the articles, if there are any potentially positive influences mentioned, they are white people such as county workers or white foster parents. In the articles, for kids to look forward to any positive outcome, they must leave the reservation or get adopted by a non-Indian family.
In almost all the articles, American Indian people are to blame for all their own problems. By constantly hammering away at "fetal alcohol syndrome," the articles suggest that Indian people whose brains were poisoned in the womb are the real source of problems on reservations.
This diatribe against American Indian people went on and on with scarcely a hint that Leech Lake people are working on their own solutions to these serious problems.
There was no sense that most families are doing all they can to help their kids along to becoming healthy adult members of their community.
There was no suggestion that many kids at Leech Lake and other reservations are thriving.
There was barely a mention of the history that lies behind today's problems.
Finally, on Tuesday, after five articles of this unrelenting portrayal of degradation, readers got a glimpse of the other side.
Yes, Ojibwe adults at Leech Lake are teaching Ojibwe children to care for themselves, to respect others, to stay in school. Yes, Ojibwe adults have something to offer: the love that all parents have for their children and grandchildren, but also ties to a culture that can be their strength in trying times. Yes, youth and adults at Leech Lake are trying to combat youth violence, drugs and alcohol. Finally, readers got a hint of the history of oppression that has created the tragedies of today.
But the damage had been done. Sunday is the biggest day for newspaper readership. Sunday is the day editors make their priorities clear. And on Sunday, Oakes and the editors chose to portray American Indian culture as a culture of degradation. They chose to say that American Indian children are doomed by being born to Indian mothers and raised by Indian parents and grandparents.
In any case, the effort in the final articles to put a more positive spin on efforts at Leech Lake ultimately fails because the series began with bogus "blame the victim" premises and claims.
No one can pretend that the tragedy and violence that the articles portray don't exist. Of course they do. But they are not a complete picture.
The articles almost ignore the many young people at Leech Lake who are not drug or alcohol abusers, and in doing so, diminish their accomplishments.
The series should have shown the range of youth experience at Leech Lake — the positive as well as negative — and then attempted to interpret why some youth succeed.
Some of the drug addictions described in these articles are epidemic in Minnesota's impoverished, rural, white communities as well. So the question becomes: Why are youth at Leech Lake being singled out?
Stories like this can easily serve as a smokescreen for attacks on tribal sovereignty. They deflect people's attention away from the real issue — the structural and historical causes and conditions of poverty in Indian country.
These kinds of stories are the most recent in a long line of arguments that ignore the many achievements of Indian people throughout history, and in doing so, justify denying them their rights by portraying them as inherently incapable of holding or exercising any sovereignty.
We encourage journalists to take an unflinching look at American Indian life today. But let's look at the accomplishments along with the tragedies. And let's not turn away from the real causes of the illnesses that American Indians confront today: poverty, forced displacement from their land and natural resource base, and the systematic destruction of their language and culture in boarding schools and other foreign educational institutions.
May 2, 2004
WALKER, MINN. — In response to your articles regarding the troubled youth of Leech Lake, I want to tell you and your readers what a wonderful place Walker and the Leech Lake area are to call home, run a business and raise a family.
I grew up on Leech Lake, near the Onigum Village, and I currently live on Walker Bay of Leech Lake. My time here has been nothing short of wonderful. In fact, I moved here five years ago to get away from the violence, drugs, alcohol and traffic of the Twin Cities to start a family and a new career.
Unfortunately, your article only makes my job selling real estate a greater challenge than it should be. The unfair and false impressions many have about the Native American population and the Leech Lake area are a direct result of articles such as "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake."
As any local property owner will tell you, the crime rate in the Leech Lake area is minimal. The No. 1 concern in my life is not my business or income, but rather my children's safety and quality of life. If the drugs, alcohol and violence you referred to in your articles were such a large issue, I would lock the doors on my business today and move them to a safer place. I can't think of another place where my children could enjoy the wildlife, lakes, state parks and outdoors the Leech Lake area has to offer.
Your articles should have just been titled, "Wasted Youth of America." Our area is no different from any other place in America. We do have crime. Unfortunately, Leech Lake and the Native Americans have been given a reputation of having a crime rate higher than what really exists.
Don't let this article give you a false impression. This is a great place to vacation or call home. I just returned to the office from writing an offer on a $2 million sale on Leech Lake, and I can tell you that this area is growing at an astounding rate because of the quality of life here.
Wade Hanson is the owner of Leech Lake Realty.
Scott Lyons: Leech Lake storytelling was poor journalism
June 5, 2004
By now it should be obvious that the three-part series "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake" (Star Tribune, April 25-27) struck a nerve, particularly among Leech Lake Ojibwe and other Minnesota Natives. When was the last time you heard about a newspaper story inspiring public demonstrations and conferences?
By my count, objections to the series have basically centered on the way it 1) focused on the worst of the worst, 2) completely ignoring happy, healthy (not to mention law-abiding) teenagers at Leech Lake; 3) generalizing the sorry state of affairs to an entire community, thus 4) contributing to another generation of stereotypes of drunken Indians, deadbeat parents and dangerous teens. Since the series also called into question the wisdom of the Indian Child Welfare Act (without discussing its historical legislative purpose) and hinted that "federal funding" is mishandled by the tribe (without offering any proof), we can add that the stories 5) implicitly attacked the sovereignty and self-determination of Leech Lake and other Indian nations.
It is reasonable to insist upon accurate, balanced and hopeful representations of one's group. No community wants to be characterized in essentially negative fashion, much less have its youth lumped together as "lost." But the problem is compounded when the group represented is American Indians, who have suffered under the weight of negative imagery for over 500 years.
From "soulless heathen" to "bloodthirsty savage" to "noble savage" to "drunken Indian" to "lost youth," the parade of imagery crafted by the dominant group — and we must admit that these images never originate from Native sources — is relentless. In other words, from the Indian perspective, this latest round is nothing new. Just relentless.
It is also typical. Consider the way the series was composed as a tragedy. (I'm talking about literary form now, so think back to your old high school English class.) As a particular type of narrative, with certain features and forms, a tragedy like "Hamlet" or "Death of a Salesman" is meant to elicit strong emotions from its audience — Aristotle identified them as pity and fear — by presenting a human being facing insurmountable odds and ending up in certain defeat. The protagonist is undone by his "tragic flaw" — the Greeks called this hamartia, and one example would be hubris or pride — usually a bad decision made somewhere that comes back to haunt the hero.
Tragedy's appeal to audiences lies in its ability to produce catharsis, the purging of emotions, which is why people enjoy crying at sad movies. One appreciates tragedy for its ability to arouse feelings of pity and fear as the tragic tale unfolds, while simultaneously feeling reassured that the world isn't going to change. That last component is crucial: With the tragic hero dead in the end, there's no impending change. Audiences are just supposed to feel bad ... which actually feels good ... then reflect upon "values."
The Lost Youth were composed as classically tragic figures, and they appealed directly to the emotions of pity and fear. One pitied Sierra Goodman, who only wanted loving parents, and feared Jesse Tapio, who drank, listened to Tupac Shakur, picked fights, and called his victims "white boy" and "whitey."
Tragic flaws included the decision of teens to drink or take drugs (the principal antagonist of every single story in the series), the consumption of youth culture (rap, heavy metal, goth, etc.), and the suspiciously ubiquitous presence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (passed on by apparently evil mothers). In the stories, the past functioned as a backdrop — not as history, but as Fate.
Thus, there's no need for serious investigation of how things came to be the way they are (i.e., the dams, the trees, the land, the disenfranchisement). Root causes? Irrelevant. Historical explanations? Unnecessary. Non-Indian responsibility? Forget about it! No, the "Lost Youth" are simply doomed because of cruel fates and tragic flaws. So dry your eyes, purge that emotion, and pass the popcorn.
Oh, and by the way, the Indian Child Welfare Act is bad, because Indian parents are bad, and federal funding can offer no help to a community of poverty. Probably best to ban alcohol on the reservation and start praying for help. Let's discuss values.
What a wonderful tragedy! But poor journalism. It would be a mistake to assume that, just because the series was based on real people and actual events, it depicted "reality." Most of Shakespeare's plays were based on "real" things too, but no one reads them as fact. The crucial point is to recognize that the series was written, put down in words by a writer, sitting at a computer, surrounded by scads of paper, who had to take all of his interviews, data, reports and the like, and fashion them into a readable story for his audience. What Larry Oakes ended up fashioning — that is, writing — was a tragedy.
Representing Indians in the tragic mode is nothing new — think "Last of the Mohicans" or "Dances with Wolves" — because the "Vanishing Indian" was never meant to have a future in the first place. This is how culture has always supported colonialism.
To the extent that Natives are perceived as perched on the brink of extinction, settlers can feel secure in their knowledge that this really was an "empty continent," thus justifying their presence on it. Purging one's emotions over the awful effects of colonization is part of the process of justification — hence, the persistent proliferation of tragic narratives.
Indian protest to these representations, however, is the telling of a different tale. This counterstory is about people who refuse to be defined out of existence or blamed for their own victimization. It tells of a real community rich and complex in experience: living life, raising children, dealing with problems, and deserving respect.
It would be good if mainstream publications started listening to that story instead of rehearsing old tragedies. In addition to producing fewer protests, it would also have the virtue of showing some respect for Native teenagers, who these days are finding it in very short supply.
Scott Lyons (Leech Lake Ojibwe) is assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University in New York, where he also teaches Native American Studies.
Lyons: Minneapolis Star-Tribune series is a tragedy of its own making
Posted: June 11, 2004 -- 9:58am EST
by: Scott Richard Lyons / Assistant Professor / Writing and Rhetoric / Syracuse University
Every so often, well-intentioned non-Indians set out to write the definitive chronicle of the "plight" of American Indians, the point being to shock other non-Indians out of complacency in order to direct public attention to the appalling conditions of life in Indian country. Perhaps the most effective of these accounts were Helen Hunt Jackson's 1881 "A Century of Dishonor", which played a direct role in the formation of the Indian Rights Association lobby group, and Lewis Meriam's 1928 "The Problem of Indian Administration", which led to a significant turn in federal Indian policy. This sort of writing, which I call "literature of the plight," explicitly seeks action and usually finds it.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's recent three-part series, "The Lost Youth of Leech Lake" (April 25 -- 27), seems to have been written in the same spirit as its plight-portraying predecessors. Documenting a depressed reservation youth culture defined by violent crime, addiction, abuse and neglect, the stated purpose of the series was "to wake-up the outside world to a true crisis," according its author, Larry Oakes. A Star-Tribune editorial defending Oakes's depiction of "the violent, hopeless, drug-and-alcohol-drenched lives" of Leech Lake youth called the portrayal "reality" and suggested that a proper reaction wouldn't be "shock" so much as "familiar sadness."
For most Leech Lakers and other Minnesota Natives, however, the reaction has been anger and protest. When was the last time a newspaper story inspired public demonstrations? There have been no fewer than three at Leech Lake: first, Dennis Banks' three-day "We Are Not All on Drugs Walk", then a youth rally, and most recently a reservation-sponsored conference themed, "We Are Not Lost." Heated debate has lit up talk shows, op-ed pages, Internet chatrooms, and dinner table discussions.
More on the Leech Lake series
AIM Founder Plans Walk to Show All Youth Aren't 'Lost'
At Leech Lake, Hope Is Emphasized
Any series that exaggerates a reservation's problems is stereotypical. It's not a matter of whether the stories are true are not, because most stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them. It's a matter of whether the stories paint a true picture overall.
If the Star-Tribune covered the rich diversity of events happening in Leech Lake, the good as well as the bad, it would be justified in focusing on the negative occasionally. Readers wouldn't get the idea that the situation is more bad than not. But with seven negative articles, including the series introduction, and only four semi-positive ones, the picture is generally downbeat. Readers understandably would draw the conclusion the critics stated: that Leech Lake is a "culture of degradation," not just a place with social problems.
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