Native Americans Criticize Bush's Silence
Response to School Shooting Is Contrasted With President's Intervention in Schiavo Case
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page A06
MINNEAPOLIS, March 24 -- Native Americans across the country -- including tribal leaders, academics and rank-and-file tribe members -- voiced anger and frustration Thursday that President Bush has responded to the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history with silence.
Three days after 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine members of his Red Lake tribe before taking his own life, grief-stricken American Indians complained that the White House has offered little in the way of sympathy for the tribe situated in the uppermost region of Minnesota.
Lance Crowe, left, listens as Cody Thunder speaks to reporters at a hospital in Bemidji, Minn. Both were wounded in the Red Lake school rampage. (Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
"From all over the world we are getting letters of condolence, the Red Cross has come, but the so-called Great White Father in Washington hasn't said or done a thing," said Clyde Bellecourt, a Chippewa Indian who is the founder and national director of the American Indian Movement here. "When people's children are murdered and others are in the hospital hanging on to life, he should be the first one to offer his condolences. . . . If this was a white community, I don't think he'd have any problem doing that."
Weise's victims included his grandfather and five teenagers; seven other students were wounded, and two of them remain in serious condition in a hospital in Fargo, N.D.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in an informal discussion with reporters Tuesday, said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were killed."
"I hope that he would say something," said Victoria Graves, a cultural educator at Red Lake Elementary School on the reservation. "It's important that there's acknowledgment of the tragedy. It's important he sees the tribes are out here. We need help."
The reaction to Bush's silence was particularly bitter given his high-profile, late-night intervention on behalf of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman caught in a legal battle over whether her feeding tube should be reinserted.
"The fact that Bush preempted his vacation to say something about Ms. Schiavo and here you have 10 native people gunned down and he can't take time to speak is very telling," said David Wilkins, interim chairman of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and a member of the North Carolina-based Lumbee tribe.
"He has not been real visible in Indian country," said former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). "He's got a lot of irons in the fire, but this is important."
Even more alarming than Bush's silence, he said, is the president's proposal to cut $100 million from several Indian programs next year.
After hearing grumbling from tribal leaders, Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, called the White House on Thursday to inquire about Bush's silence. "I wanted to make sure the White House is paying attention to this issue," she said. "I wasn't sure."
Asked Thursday about Bush's silence, spokeswoman Dana Perino said that he plans to dedicate part of his Saturday radio address to the Red Lake tragedy and that he is following the case closely through the FBI and the Justice Department.
In the hours after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, President Bill Clinton publicly expressed his condolences and followed up a few days later with a radio address in which he proposed new gun control measures and school safety projects.
At the Red Lake Urban Indian Office here, volunteer Marilyn Westbrook said she was disappointed but not surprised.
"I don't feel he cares about the American Indian people," said Westbrook, as she collected donations of gas cards and money to enable fellow Red Lake members to make the 260-mile journey to the reservation. "Why hasn't he made any statements about what happened with this shooting?"
Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth in Red Lake and Peter Baker in Waco, Tex., and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.