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Tribal elders protective of Red Lake culture
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A drum ceremony was held on the Bemidji State University campus Friday, to honor the victims of the Red Lake shooting. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Over the next few days the Red Lake Nation will bury 10 of its people, victims of a teenage gunman who went on a shooting rampage at the Red Lake High School. The most private grieving will be in the traditional village of Ponemah, which lost three teenagers in the shooting. Tribal elders talk about their culture and their mistrust of outsiders.

Ponemah, Minn. — Ponemah is a place where most people still speak the Ojibwe language. They practice the same ceremonies their ancestors practiced long before Europeans arrived in North America.

Larry Stillday prefers to be known by his Indian name, Gichi-ma'ingan. He says traditional ceremonies can't be easily understood. Ceremonies are not a prescribed static event, but a living, breathing extension of the people who are participating.

"My experience is people come to us and talk about our culture, and say, 'OK, now we understand it.' And they miss the whole depth of it," says Gichi-ma'ingan. "Because our ceremony and our language is all of who we are. The earth, the sky, everything. So the depth is way beyond just having a conversation with somebody. So what happens is, it's left to the outside world the interpretation of who we are."

Gichi-ma'ingan says the interpretation of Indian ceremonies is too often a one-dimensional representation, and only captures a moment in time when tragedy grabs the attention of the outside world. The focus is on what's visible, the ceremony. The deeper spiritual meaning is missed.

"It is not that we don't want to share, but they approach us as teachers in the same sense as standing in front of the classroom and teaching. It is not that way," says Gichi-ma'ingan.

He says traditional beliefs and ceremonies can only be understood when they've been experienced. That's why recording and photos are not allowed at many of the most sacred ceremonies. The elders believe that simply encourages superficial understanding of their culture.

Gichi-ma'ingan has strong distrust of people who suddenly express deep interest in his beliefs when there is a tragedy.

"When I get up and go outside my house and get ready to go to work -- no cameras, no tape recorders, so I'm an invisible human being. But we here on the reservation do our work like anywhere else," says Gichi-ma'ingan. "And when a tragedy happens, all of a sudden here they are. 'I have a lot of questions for you.' My advice is, come over to my house and visit when there is no tragedy. And then I can talk with you."

The man who will preside over three traditional funerals in Ponemah in the next few days is Tom Stillday. Stillday is a man who speaks quietly and slowly. He doesn't talk about the ceremony itself, but he says the general idea is relatively universal.

"Our traditional funerals, we talk about God, the Creator and all his helpers. We talk about the Holy Ghost and all his helpers," says Tom Stillday. "These are the things we talk about in ceremony, to show these kids' souls when they go to the spiritual world."

For the families of Dewayne Lewis Jr., Thurlene Stillday and Chanelle Rosebear, grief will be private. The elders say they welcome the prayers of anyone.

Melvin Jones is troubled by what he sees as an invasion of the Red Lake nation.

"All we're asking for is respect. To respect us for who we are. We have a lot of hurt up here. Our elderly people and the families, I'm pretty sure they want respect from outsiders," says Jones.

Eugene Stillday, another elder, introduces himself this way.

"My Indian name is Red Cloud, Misquanacut. I'm from the Bear Clan, the Boshing Band of the Red Lake Ojibwe."

Eugene Stillday also grew up in Ponemah. He says the only religion he's ever known is Midewiwin, the ancient Anishinaabe practices and beliefs.

He chooses not to share information about traditional ceremonies, because he says people simply see it as an oddity rather than a religion to be accepted and respected.

Recording and photos are not allowed at many of the most sacred ceremonies. The elders believe that simply encourages superficial understanding of their culture.

Stillday recalls his experience enlisting in the Navy as a young man. The enlistment form had a line for indicating his religion. He was told to say he was a pagan.

"I didn't want to write 'pagan' on there, so I just put the letter P. When I got to Minneapolis they reviewed my papers there, and the petty officer looked at it and said, 'Religion, P. Oh, you're a Protestant.' I said, 'Yeah, a Protestant.' I didn't know what a Protestant was. So for four years I was a Protestant," he recalls.

Eugene Stillday says his spiritual beliefs provide guidance and discipline for living. He says that's something lacking for too many Indian children today.

"We are losing our kids, because one of the main things we are losing is our language. You need to speak and understand Ojibwe before you can understand what the religion is," Eugene Stillday says. "Growing up, when I went to school my English was limited. Ojibwe was my first language. Still is."

Tribal officials at Red Lake say they are working to bring back traditional culture and language. But for many, that's not happening fast enough. Ojibwe language was squelched by years of boarding schools. Traditional culture and religion faded with the language.

Many elders believe the violence and hopelessness among kids on the reservation is a result of a broken connection to traditional values.

They say the strength and discipline of traditional values and beliefs offer the best hope for healing the Red Lake nation.

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