In November 2002, Larry Oakes, a longtime reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, returned to his boyhood home in the northern Minnesota village of Cass Lake. City Pages newspaper in the Twin Cities says Oakes had been assigned to cover one of the more appalling crimes in the state’s recent history, the bludgeoning death of a legally blind, 48-year-old albino man on a downtown Cass Lake street.
After an early round of reporting, Oakes realized that he had something more than a run-of-the-mill crime story. The murder was just the latest in a disturbing string of crimes and premature deaths involving youth from the Leech Lake Reservation. In less than half a year, there had been four homicides involving reservation youth as either perpetrators or victims. With a population of 860 people, Cass Lake seemed to be at the epicenter of much of the violence. He ended up writing a 20,000-word, three-day series that provided an unflinching and intimate look at the reservation. A forum held on the series turned out not be a retort to the thesis that something had gone horribly wrong in the lives of many youth on the reservation but a “ritual of catharsis” in which, as one speaker put it, “A lot of us mothers and grandmothers have lost children,” she said plainly. “We’ve got to quit hiding. We’ve got to deal with it.”