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Jourdain talks about the challenges of leading Red Lake

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Red Lake tribal chairman Buck Jourdain says one of his mentors told him, "In darkened times, we shine." He says he's working to step up to the challenge of leading his tribe through the difficult aftermath of the school shootings. (MPR file photo)
As Red Lake students prepare to head back to school next week, their tribal chairman continues to deal with his own personal problems. Buck Jourdain's 16-year-old son, Louis Jourdain, is in federal custody, accused of playing a conspiratory role in the March 21 shootings. While Buck Jourdain has taken time away to deal with his family crisis, he's made it clear that, for now, he'll continue to lead the Red Lake Nation.

Red Lake, Minn. — With his tight, black ponytail, dark eyes and solid frame, Buck Jourdain exudes an aura of confidence. But Jourdain says a couple of days ago he wasn't confident that high school students would return so soon to the place where so much violence occurred.

Jourdain pointed out to the school board just last week that it took Columbine 18 months to reopen its high school. Shootings there in 1999 left 15 dead, including the two teenage gunmen.

But Jourdain says he respects the school board's decision to resume classes next week. He says it was made after very careful consideration.

"Whether it's two days, two months or two years, you still have to go back on that first day and face your fears," says Jourdain. "Those are the types of things that they've taken into consideration."

Jourdain says when the doors open Monday, he expects there will be lots of empty desks.

"I don't think all the kids are ready to go back. I don't see a lot of kids going back to school," says Jourdain. "I think the school board is preparing for that, that the numbers will be down and the attendance will be down. And it's going to be an ongoing process of getting the kids back up to where they feel comfortable setting foot back in school at all."

Jourdain says his administration will do whatever it can to reassure parents and kids that it's safe to return to school. He says the tribe will make sure mental health professionals are available. They'll encourage tribal members to pay more attention to their kids and get involved in their education.

As for Jourdain's personal struggle, he declined to comment on the legal status of his son, Louis. Jourdain says he's gotten hundreds of calls, e-mails, and words of support from tribal members telling him to hang in there. He says that was enough to tell him he can't back away from his responsibility of leading the tribe through one of its darkest moments.

"Of course there are those who felt that I should have resigned my position and stepped down," he acknowledges. "I have a confidential personal court proceeding that involves my son. But I feel real positive about that. But that doesn't have a lot to do with my job or my administration. And I feel pretty good about the situation I'm in right now."

Jourdain says he's feeling stronger every day.

"One of my mentors told me at one time, 'In darkened times, we shine.' In other words, when things are going bad, somebody has to step up to the plate," Jourdain says. "And you really don't have a lot of time to think about what is really going on. It's just that there's people that need help and they need assistance and they need somebody to take the lead. And I think part of that just comes from my spiritual beliefs -- and just instinct, I think."

Buck Jourdain insists his son is innocent. He said the only thing Louis Jourdain is guilty of is being friends with gunman Jeff Weise, who was also Louis's cousin.

The chairman says his son's full story will eventually come out. He says it will be a story full of twists and turns and tragedies. But he says it's a story of hope, and one from which everyone can learn.

Federal authorities remain tight-lipped on the exact charges against Louis Jourdain, or the nature of his alleged involvement.