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Brandon Humphrey: Killed

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Brandon Humprhey at 14
Brandon Humphrey at 14.
Photo courtesy of Anne Dunn

In a township hall near Cass Lake on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, a large American Indian family celebrates Brandon Humphrey's 18th birthday.  

Brandon's birthday cake
Brandon's 18th birthday cake.
Photo courtesy of Anne Dunn

The smell of wild rice hot dish and meat loaf fills the noisy room. There's a long table near the kitchen brimming with potluck dishes and desserts. Brandon's mother, Wally Humphrey,  sets out a birthday cake.

"He wanted to be 18," Wally Humphrey said. "He waited so long to turn 18.  Brandon's probably walking around here smiling at everybody." 

Hanging above the cake and the balloons is a collage of pictures. They show Brandon as a big, burly, bear of a kid, with squinty, mischievous eyes and a cheerful smile. There's Brandon in his wrestling uniform. Brandon singing baritone in the school choir.  Brandon dancing at a powwow. Brandon pretending to be Groucho Marx.   

THE BIRTHDAY BOY ISN'T HERE

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends are at the party. But the birthday boy isn't here. 

Brandon Humphrey was murdered last October. He was shot to death while standing around a campfire at an early morning party just outside of Cass Lake. A 17-year-old boy is accused of shooting Humphrey and wounding two other young men. The motive isn't clear, but it may have been a fight over a girl.

Photos of Brandon
A large display of photos from Brandon's life was featured at his 18th birthday party.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

After Brandon Humphrey's murder, his mother, Wally, locked herself away in her home and sank into depression.

"Some days it's completely devastating. And when I think about it I have to get sick," said Wally Humphrey. "I stay alone for days and pretend he's in his room. I fix the bed to look like he's sleeping. I left his voice on the answering machine, and sometimes I let the phone ring and ring, just so I can hear him again."

Brandon Humphrey had a sharp sense of humor and he loved to laugh. Friends and family say he was honest and caring. But Brandon also had his share of troubles. He messed around with drugs and alcohol. He struggled academically. Sometimes he ran away or skipped school. He spent  time locked up in a juvenile detention center. 

Wally Humphrey struggled to raise Brandon. They lived in a neighborhood notorious for gang activity, drive-by shootings, and drugs.  

Brandon's dad left home when he was little. Sometimes Brandon didn't get along with his mom. He'd leave for months at a time to live with his grandparents. 

LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT

Wally worried about the people Brandon hung out with, and about the dangers of life on the reservation.

Young wrestler
Brandon as a young wrestler.
Photo courtesy of Anne Dunn

"I'd always say you know, 'You walk around by yourself, somebody is going to hurt you,'" said Humphrey. "And he'd say, 'Well, I'm big enough to handle it.' And I'd tell him, 'That's why they're going to hurt you, because you're a big man. Someone's going to have to prove themselves.'"

Wally Humphrey says her son was looking forward to being a dad. His 16-year-old girlfriend was pregnant when he died. She gave birth to a little girl in February. Brandon was planning to join the Army. Wally Humphrey says like a lot of other kids his age, Brandon wanted to leave the reservation.

"He just wanted to get out of here so he could make a better life for his little family, and have a way of supporting them and taking care of them," said Humphrey. "Because the young men around here, they really have to defend themselves, every day. I mean, you walk down the street and there's people trying to fight you or trying to shoot you."

Wally Humphrey
Brandon's mother, Wally Humphrey, says it's still hard for her to accept that he is no longer around.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

That sort of violence is common, according to Terry LaDuke, who is Brandon Humphrey's aunt. LaDuke works at a women's crisis center in Cass Lake. She says senseless violence is widespread on the reservation. 

"We see this every day. And that's just the domestic violence," said LaDuke. "That's not talking about the beatings that go on around here, and the rapes that go on over drug deals, the shootings. Me and my sister, we're sitting there and there was a drive-by shooting. And they started shooting at us. But they were supposed to be shooting at that house across the road, you know. That was normal, and nobody really even did anything."

THE VIOLENCE IS ALMOST NORMAL

LaDuke has struggled with her own personal problems. She overcame a drug addiction in the 1980s. One of her three kids got involved in a gang and is now in prison. LaDuke says despite government efforts to make life better for young people, things seem to be getting worse.

"In the last 10 years, people have been like jarred out of their apathy, or their blinders have been stripped from their eyes," said LaDuke. "And people live in fear around here. You know, there's a lot of fear."

Balloon release
Family members released balloons at the cemetery where Brandon Humphrey is buried, on the day of his birthday party.
Photo courtesy of Ann Dunn

"There's a lot of gang stuff up here, that outside gangs come here and run drugs and take over people's homes," said LaDuke. "There's a lot of sexual violence. They're addicting young women here who will do sexual acts for drugs. A lot of robberies and beatings, and it's all part of something larger that we as individuals are not equipped to deal with."

Brandon Humphrey was a senior at Cass Lake-Bena High School. He was a popular kid who had lots of friends. Between classes each day, Brandon used to stand beneath a trophy case at a busy hallway intersection. 

After Humphrey's death, students made a makeshift memorial just below the trophy case. It includes a pair of Humphrey's wrestling shoes, a couple of weightlifting plates, some flowers, a teddy bear and his obituary.

Mike Hanson, an academic advisor for Indian education at the school, was also Humphrey's wrestling coach. Hanson took Humphrey's death hard.

Mike Hanson
Mike Hanson was Brandon's wrestling coach. He worries that the violence has become 'almost normal' among Indian teens.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I didn't want to believe it at first, because you just expect Brandon in the hallways," said Hanson. "You just expect that big, smiley, bear-like body walking down the hallways smiling, good-natured. You just don't expect stuff like that."

You hear that a lot from people in Cass Lake. Their first reaction to violence is often shock and disbelief. But violence has long been an ugly part of life on the Leech Lake Reservation. 

Many, like Hanson, say the violence in Cass Lake last fall was just the latest in a string of tragedies. Hanson says the violence has become almost normal.

"I think sometimes you get the feelings that stuff like this is going to happen," Hanson said. "I mean you can feel the brewing, you can feel the anger, you can feel the factions sometimes. You know, you don't see people outside walking in Cass Lake anymore. I think they're scared because of all the stuff that's going on."

'YOU GOTTA STAND UP FOR YOURSELF'

Arlan Littlewolf, 18, is Brandon's cousin and one of his best friends. Littlewolf says he has fond childhood memories of growing up with Brandon. But life got more difficult when they hit their teen years.

"When we started growing up, that's when things started getting complicated," Littlewolf said. "That's what it's like. Carefree at first, but when you become a young adult, that's when things start changing. Reality sets in. You ain't a little kid anymore and you gotta start standing up for yourself. Otherwise, something might happen to you."

Arlan Littlewolf
Arlan Littlewolf, Brandon's cousin, says drugs and alcohol are all some kids live for.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Littlewolf says he and Brandon often had to defend themselves. He says a lot of young people fight on the reservation. Littlewolf says kids are split into factions. Sometimes the divisions are based on extended families, sometimes on neighborhood turf. He calls them little colonies of kids who don't get along. 

Littlewolf says the biggest contributors to the tensions are drugs and alcohol.

"I see a lot of people, they don't really do nothing during the day," said Littlewolf. "They just resort to getting high or drunk, and they're drunk all the time. There's a lot of drunks. And that's where the hopelessness comes from, is doing drugs and stuff. They think that makes them feel better, but its what's keeping them down."

Brandon Humphrey was one of four people murdered in the Cass Lake community within a few short months last fall. An elderly man was stabbed to death by a neighbor. Two young men were beaten to death in separate incidents. All of the victims and their attackers were American Indian.  The spasm of violence stunned the community.

Indian reservations can be dangerous places to grow up. American Indians are twice as likely to be murdered as white people. They have the highest drug and alcohol abuse rates in the nation.  Injuries account for 75 percent of all deaths among Native American youth.

NO HEROES IN THE HOUSE

Brandon and grandma
Brandon and his grandmother, Anne Dunn.
Photo courtesy of Anne Dunn

The elders on the reservation often struggle to put their finger on what's gone wrong in Native communities.  

In a cozy, A-frame home on the Leech Lake Reservation, Brandon Humphrey's grandmother, Anne Dunn, goes through some of his things. There are football trinkets, notebooks and craft projects Anne and Brandon used to work on together. 

"This is a little lunch box I got for him because he needed a place to keep his photographs," she said.

Dunn was devastated by the loss of her grandson. But she says Brandon's death is just a symptom of a bigger problem. 

She believes it started 100 years ago when Indian kids were taken from their families, sometimes for years, and put in government boarding schools. They weren't allowed to practice their culture or speak their language.

Dunn memorial
Anne Dunn set up this memorial of candles in her backyard for Brandon, on his birthday in early March.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Dunn says the end result is generations of broken families.  Alcoholic parents. Domestic abuse. Extreme poverty. She says there are few adult role models on reservations, so young people look up to rap stars or local gang members.  

"They have these heroes, but they're not even real heroes. They're not," said Dunn. "And the heroes that we really need -- we need a hero in the neighborhood. We need a hero in the house. And our kids don't have any heroes. They don't have anybody to emulate."

With few role models to encourage them, American Indian students are three times as likely as other kids to drop out of school.