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Trail of tears

Red Lake pastor prepares for yet another funeral at a deeply troubled reservation

Alicia White would have turned 15 next month. The ninth-grader at Red Lake High School who liked talking on the phone and going to church with her grandmother was looking forward to a summer youth group trip to Tennessee. Instead, Alicia will be buried next week, along with at least eight other victims of 16-year-old Jeff Weise.

Weise walked into Red Lake Indian Reservation's only high school on March 21 wearing his grandfather's gun belt and bulletproof vest. After gunning down a 28-year-old security guard, he killed five students and a teacher, and wounded 14 others. Ten minutes later, Weise killed himself. Authorities found the boy's grandfather, a longtime tribal police officer, and the man's girlfriend dead in the home they shared with Weise.

The worst school shooting since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre stunned the 5,000-plus residents of the northern Minnesota reservation and left them grappling for answers. Reports soon emerged about Weise's troubled upbringing: The boy's father committed suicide four years ago, and his mother suffered brain injuries in a car accident that left her in a nursing home.

Other reports emerged about Weise's dark interests: Authorities believe the teenager who dressed in black and wrote violent stories about zombies may also have been posting messages on a neo-Nazi website using the handle Todesengel-German for "Angel of Death."

Alicia White's pastor, Tom Pollock, told WORLD that while incidents of this month's severity are rare on the remote reservation, dysfunction and violence are not. "There's an awful lot of pain in Red Lake because of the breakdown of the family," Mr. Pollock said.

Mr. Pollock, who has been pastor of a small church on the reservation for 15 years, said promiscuity and divorce run rampant. He and his wife have "dropped many kids off at empty homes" after church functions while parents or guardians gamble in reservation casinos, he said. Nearly 40 percent of the families live below the poverty line. Drug and alcohol abuse plague adults and teens alike. "There's not a lot of security in these kids' lives," Mr. Pollock said.

Violent retaliation is also a reality on the reservation, according to Mr. Pollock. "The Native Americans have come to learn to deal with death and funerals. It's a big part of their lives because of violence," he said. "That's life at Red Lake."

Alicia White was a bright spot in Red Lake, according to Mr. Pollock. The pastor described Alicia as a "very quiet, very sweet" girl who was like a mother to her four sisters and three brothers. She also loved the church, and came regularly with her grandmother, Alberta. "Two years ago she stood up at our summer Bible camp and told the other kids that she wanted Jesus Christ to be her Savior," he said.

Mr. Pollock and his wife went straight to the hospital when they heard about the school shooting. "We'd worked with so many kids we thought we would probably know someone who had been hurt," Mr. Pollock said. A nurse led the Pollocks into a room where the grieved couple saw Alicia lying dead. The couple stayed with her body until her family arrived.

Mr. Pollock expects to preach Alicia's funeral next week. It will be the fourth funeral he's preached for the White family. Alicia's grandmother has lost two sons, one to leukemia and one to murder. Alicia's mother lost a premature baby boy six months ago.

For now, Mr. Pollock said he will focus on "sharing the love of Jesus with as many people as possible," and hopes that "hearts will be turned to Him."

"We know other people are praying for us," he said. "And we know that God will work these things together for the good of those who love Him."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.