A tribute to Moon Roberts

Our community lost a great leader this past week. Moon Roberts, a young Anishinaabe man from Ponsford (son of Lyman and Sue Roberts) took his own life in Cass Lake.

Our community lost a great leader this past week. Moon Roberts, a young Anishinaabe man from Ponsford (son of Lyman and Sue Roberts) took his own life in Cass Lake.

This is an immense loss not only for the Anishinaabe people, but for all of northern Minnesota.

Future generations hold our hopes. Moon did more than that in his short life. He was an example for native youth from the region -- for many years, an example of sobriety, studiousness, commitment, serving the elders, respect, traditional teachings and values, and an immense willingness to give and to commit to change.

Raised in a traditional family in Pine Point, his commitment to Ojibwe cultural practices and the commitment of his parents to his well being and growth, cannot be understated. It has been a model to many of us, who seek to parent as well as we can in these trying times.

Moon was also a leader in the anti-racism movement nationally. Trained at the People's Institute for Survival, he was a key part in leading discussions of institutional and personal racism issues throughout the country, including a great deal of very patient work in northern Minnesota.


The tragedy of this loss is tied to a broader tragedy in native communities, and, I would suggest, in America. Young native men have the highest incidence of suicide in the United States, arguably the world. Moon's decision to take his life places him squarely in this tragedy -- but in doing so, also begs us to ask the question of why this is true.

My daughter, Waseyabin, has just finished a paper on native depression and suicide, and found that young native men commit suicide at a rate 250 percent times higher than the national average. As it turns out, more young native women attempt suicide, but men, by their choice of weapon, usually succeed.

For many years, White Earth led the region in suicides: In l990, the rate for White Earth reservation was 8.5 times higher than the American Indian average in Minnesota.

After a lot of work on White Earth, that is diminishing, but we are watching a huge increase nearby on the Leech Lake and Red Lake reservations, of not only suicides, but incredibly tragic and violent crimes committed by native youth, often upon other native youth.

Native people have been studied quite a bit, and in general, the incidence of suicide is part of a larger scenario of alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

The incidence in native communities is so high that psychologists and sociologists recognize it as a group "cultural pathology," associated with the whole community, not just the individuals.

Study after study documents the incidences, and attributes the problems to an "unresolved historic grief," of loss of land, culture, economy, way of life, and by and large an extreme amount of abuse often associated with Indian boarding schools.

In referring to the Pine Ridge reservation, Lakota sociologist Marie Brave-Heart Jordan calls this grief "... a repercussion of the loss of land, lives, and aspects of culture rendered by the European conquest of the Americas ... A significant factor in contributing to ( Lakota) social pathology..."


I often hear people say that "Indian people should get over the past," but the reality is that since history has created the circumstances we live in, and the relationships we have today, we need to acknowledge history -- which is something that is not done, by and large, in America. Not in public schools, civic classes, or even in the celebration of something like "Columbus Day." How would Americans feel if we celebrated the birthday of a mass murderer and slave holder who had destroyed many of their communities? All of these circumstances contribute to the sorrow of native people.

Most non-native people know little about our history as native people, but as another example, it's pretty widely recognized that the sexual and physical abuse associated with the time when most of our grandparents were taken forcibly to boarding schools has left a deep scar.

In fact, the scar is so deep that the Canadian government (which operated "residential schools" for native people) has just allocated over $1 billion in compensation to boarding school abuse victims to fend off more litigation.

Litigation has already almost bankrupted some dioceses of the Anglican Church in Canada. (Americans are more familiar with the sexual abuse scandals of individual priests in the Catholic Church, but this is a much more broad, and hidden, set of crimes).

This is not to say that Moon personally faced these problems. But it is to say that the grief and loss of native people overall, illustrated by loss of land, forced colonization, and present social and economic conditions, is viewed as a central factor in both the direct suicides and violence in the native community, and as well, the "self medication" of alcohol.

Denying people a right to be who they are has been a federal policy in Indian country for decades. Dignity is based on allowing people to live their lives, and in creating a culture of respect for diversity -- not only socially, but spiritually, economically, and politically.

As individuals, we need to take responsibility for our own health and well being, but as a society, we need to address the social, economic, political and educational institutions which have historically -- and often still today -- caused disregard and perpetuated ignorance and discrimination against people.

Moon's life was lived to both stand up to injustice and to heal our community. In losing Moon, we must not lose the vision of where we are going as people -- whether native or settler in northern Minnesota.


Moon's legacy should be justice. I pledge to keep up his work.

(LaDuke helped found the White Earth Land Recovery project. She lives in Ponsford.)

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