Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Cass Lake community struggles with increase in violence

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Cass Lake Mayor Elaine Fleming has been vocal about the violence, "There's this war going on in our community, and we're fighting ourselves and we're hurting each other." (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Violence has long been a problem on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, especially in the reservation's largest community of Cass Lake. In the past five years there have been 16 murders in Cass County, which includes most of the reservation. Half of those murders occurred in the Cass Lake area. Many people in Cass Lake worry the violence is getting worse. There have been four murders in just the past two months. Tribal and community leaders are now trying to figure out what to do about it.

Cass Lake, Minn. — It's hard to find anyone in the Cass Lake area who hasn't in some way been affected by recent violence. That includes the town's mayor, Elaine Fleming. Last month, Fleming's 20-year-old son was shot in the hand while standing around a campfire just north of Cass Lake. Two other young men were also shot. One of them, 17-year-old Brandon Humphrey, was killed. Fleming says no one feels safe anymore.

"There's this war going on in our community," said Fleming, "and we're fighting ourselves and we're hurting each other.

Just a few weeks after Fleming's son was shot, there was more violence. The severely beaten body of 23-year-old Samuel Dow was discovered in the basement of a Cass Lake home. That was just a day after 20-year-old Michael James Littlewolf was found beaten and unconscious on a Cass Lake street. Littlewolf later died at a local hospital.

It isn't just homicides that are wearing people down in Cass Lake. If you read the local newspapers, it seems a week doesn't go by without an alcohol related car crash or some other violent misfortune. Just a few days ago, a young man was struck and killed by a semi-truck on Highway 2. Local authorities say it appears the man may have thrown himself in front of the vehicle.

Violence in the Cass Lake area takes many form, but in nearly every case, it's a violent act that's Indian against Indian. Mayor Elaine Fleming says people are afraid of what will happen next.

"I'm afraid for my son," Fleming said. "I'm not just afraid for my son, but I'm afraid for other sons and the daughters that are out there. At this point, the way that we've been touched, it's hard to put down your fear, because things are not all right. Something is really seriously wrong here that we have to fix."

Violence on Indian reservations isn't unusual. National statistics show native people on reservations are two and a half times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the general population. Few people on the reservation have been as personally affected by violence as Ernestine Morgan-Johnson.

In 2001, Morgan-Johnson's son shot and killed her ex-husband and stabbed two others. In 2003, Morgan-Johnson's alcoholic sister fatally stabbed the sister's boyfriend. And just this past September, Morgan-Johnson's brother-in-law was stabbed to death by his next door neighbor over a strange incident involving a dog fight. Morgan-Johnson says she knows very well that the community is hurting.

"No words can take away or describe the pain that these people are going through, the mothers, the grandmothers, the sisters," said Morgan-Johnson. "Let's take control of what's going on here. Let's stand together as a nation and pray for these people, these individuals that have hurt."

The recent string of violence in Cass Lake was the last straw for Leech Lake Tribal Chairman George Goggleye. The ex-marine recently declared war on what he called the thugs who are committing violence and trying to destroy the community.

Goggleye says he thinks many of the perpetrators are involved with gangs and drugs. He says there are multiple layers of complex social problems on the reservation. But at the heart of it all is a loss of cultural identity.

"You know what's happening out here is, these people don't know who they are," said Goggleye. "They've gotten away from the values of the family. And right now we don't have those things. Very few families do."

Goggleye says poverty and a lack of desire for education are other big factors that contribute to crime and violence. Goggleye looks back nostalgically at his own childhood, when he says parents in the community disciplined their kids and made them go to school.

"Today, it's quite different," Goggleye said. "We have kids as young as seven, eight years old who are testing positive for drugs. We have truancy, kids who have not been in school, and they're 10 years old and they haven't went to one day of school. That's the kind of society that's coming up."

This week Goggleye called a meeting to find answers. He invited local law enforcement, and government officials, the heads of tribal, county and state agencies and members of the community to come together to talk.

One of the participants was Ann Dunn, an Ojibwe storyteller and children's book author. Dunn says problems in the Cass Lake area have been around for years. She says she hopes the community's current grief and outrage will make local leaders do something to change things.

"The leadership has to respond to that, and maybe because of that, they will do something," Dunn said. "My God, they have to be able to see that this is an unbearable situation. We really can't stand this. This is too hard."

It's been especially hard on Dunn. It was her grandson, Brandon Humphrey, who was shot and killed just a few weeks ago.

"So when you see that and you're a part of it, and you're a survivor of that kind of violence, it brings all of those issues right to your heart," said Dunn. "And you really want to see them do something. But you know, I've lived here a long time and I've heard a lot of talk. I haven't seen a lot of action."

Goggleye says his tribal government has already gone beyond just words in this renewed fight against drugs, gangs and violence. Goggleye says the tribal council is toughening its eviction policies for drug dealers living on tribal lands. And Goggleye says the council is considering banishment for serious criminals on the reservation.

Goggleye says the biggest challenge will be maintaining momentum within the community. He says factional fighting among families and groups, even rivalries between small towns on the reservation, sometimes makes it difficult to get anything accomplished.

"Cass Lake doesn't like Inger," said Goggleye. "Inger doesn't like Ball Club. Bena doesn't like Sugar Point. I mean, that's the mentality. But you know, the sad thing about this is we're all, in some way, shape or form, we're all relatives. But we dislike each other. Figure that one out."

Local law enforcement officials say suspects are in custody for two of the recent murders in Cass Lake. There have been no arrests in the other two cases.

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