Darryl Headbird remembers getting a good grip on the bat and adjusting his stance. He stood next to the bed in the darkened room. His father's eyes were closed. Darryl could hear his rhythmic breathing and see his chest rise and fall. Darryl, 14, raised the bat above his head. But a sudden twinge of concern stopped him. What if he doesn't die after the first swing?
He lowered the bat and thought. Then he tiptoed out of the little house where he lived with his father on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.
The night was black; it was well after midnight on May 25, 2001. Darryl whistled their chained dog over to where he stood and patted its head. The nameless brown dog lay down at his feet in the dark.
Darryl took a step back and swung the bat. The sound of the dog's skull splintering reminded him of the noise a cracker makes when bitten, he said later. More significant to him, though, was the way the dog collapsed and died without a whimper. He dragged the warm, limp carcass through the back yard and heaved it into the brush. Then he walked back into the house, bat in hand.
The Leech Lake Indian Reservation is a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Majestic stands of pine ring three of Minnesota's largest lakes.
Tourists come here to fish, hunt or snowmobile in a place where bald eagles soar above sugar-sand beaches.
But in the midst of this tremendous beauty, there is tremendous misery. Here, alarming numbers of Indian children are lost to alcohol, drugs, prison and violence. Leech Lake is not the only Minnesota tribe facing such problems. But lately the reservation has become an especially violent place, where murders -- such as the beating death of blind Cass Lake resident Louie Bisson in 2002 -- are no longer surprising. The Leech Lake Reservation is, statistically, among the worst places in Minnesota to grow up.
Cass County, where most of the reservation's people live, ranked last among 77 Minnesota counties in a 1999 government study that measured the health and safety of children. (Ten of Minnesota's 87 counties were not ranked.)
In 2002, Cass County had the state's highest percentage of children living in foster homes and other county-supervised care. Most of them were Indians from the reservation, taken away from their parents, or given up by them, because of abuse, neglect or delinquency.
In many cases, alcohol is a cause. Mothers damage their babies' brains by drinking their way through pregnancy. Many of those babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a brain defect that severely impairs judgment. Those babies often grow up to become neglectful or destructive parents themselves, and the cycle begins anew.
Mothers and fathers abandon their children, sometimes for a few days to go on a bender, sometimes for longer stretches when they're sent away to prison.
Some of the children are taken in by relatives, often grandparents. Others are shuttled through a series of foster homes. And some more or less raise themselves.
Many of these neglected children have learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Some have mental illnesses that aren't identified until they commit a serious crime. Many are physically or sexually abused. Starved for family, they find substitutes in gangs. Many abuse drugs and alcohol. A statewide study of ninth-graders in the mid-1990s found that Cass County had the highest rate of heavy drug and alcohol use and the highest rate of alcohol abuse within their families. The county also ranked first in numbers of people admitted to detoxification centers.
Police, prosecutors and judges in the county estimate that at least 90 percent of Indian offenders commit their crimes while drunk.
Death comes earlier here. In Minnesota, Indians' average life expectancy is about eight years less than for the population as a whole.
The hopelessness has surfaced in a string of deaths, including the beating deaths of Bisson and a tourist, an arson that killed a young mother, a drug overdose that killed a teenage girl, the fatal shooting of a young father and the death of a teenage boy who was run over while lying on a highway -- all in less than two years.
As a result of those six deaths, five other young people are in prison, one awaits sentencing and three await trial.
A year before this string began, hopelessness boiled over in another murder case involving two particularly troubled Ojibwe children -- Darryl Headbird and Sierra Goodman.