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Opinion. It was a rough and hard week.

My smartphone sent me an alert at 10 p.m. on Monday about the mass shooting at Michigan State University (MSU) where eight people were shot in two different campus buildings.

It immediately caught my attention because one of Native News Online’s reporters, Neely Bardwell (Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians), is a junior at MSU where she serves as the co-chair of the  North American Indigenous Student Organization (NAISO).

I immediately attempted to call Neely to make sure she was okay. Several attempts to reach her by phone yielded no response. A recording said: “This call cannot be completed at this time.” I called back and got the same message. 

Since the calls did not go through, I texted her. She texted me back almost immediately and told me she was okay in her apartment, which is on the other side of campus from where the shootings took place.

She told me she laid down some sema (tobacco), burned cedar and sage. 

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I asked Neely about the well-being of Native American students at MSU. She told me that she and her fellow co-chair Roxy Sprowl (Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa) began the process through a group chat and texting to make sure fellow NAISO members were okay. They were.

She also texted she was listening to the police scanner. There were so many calls into the police that ultimately proved to be not true. However, sitting in the darkness of her apartment, Neely did not know what was really going on. There were calls into the police that there had been three shooters. 

With no one in custody, Neely and Roxy checked in on their fellow Native American students periodically during the ensuing hours to make sure they remained safe. Roxy told me later in the week that the appropriate word for what transpired on Monday evening was “hysteria.”

Assistant Secretary of the Interior - Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) was halfway around the world in Australia on a trip with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) when he received notification about the mass shooting. His son is a freshman at MSU. 

He posted on Twitter: “I texted my son to check on him, and he texted me that he and his roommate were locked in their dorm room and had barricaded the door. Not long after, he called me.” 

His son was safe and told his father he was scared. 

“The next morning, I was finally able to have a video call with my son. I just wanted to see his face and hear his voice. As soon as he popped up on my phone, my voice cracked and my eyes filled with tears (I hate when my kids see me cry). I felt every emotion at once,” Newland said in another Tweet.

By then it was determined that a 43-year-old lone gunman who had no affiliation with MSU walked onto the campus and performed the dastardly and senseless shootings. 

The shootings changed the lives of the MSU students forever.

In the aftermath members of the NAISO joined thousands of their fellow students at a campus vigil on Wednesday evening that was marked by frigid temperatures and silence. I traveled to the campus from Grand Rapids, which is one hour away, to cover the event.

Shortly before 6 p.m., MSU students, faculty, administrators and community began the vigil with rows of people encircling the Rock, a boulder on the campus that serves as a sort of billboard for students. This week it has served as a memorial site. As the vigil progressed on Wednesday, dozens of flower bouquets were placed by students, some of whom knelt to say prayers with tears running down their cheeks.

Next to the Rock were three white crosses to honor three MSU students who were killed by a mentally ill man: Arielle Anderson, 19, of Harper Woods, Mich.; Brian Fraser, 20, of Grosse Pointe, Mich.; and Alexandria Verner, 20, of Clawson, Mich.

After about 45 minutes, the crowd moved to a plaza area outside the Auditorium where the crowd heard from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer,  MSU Interim President Teresa K. Woodruff, and MSU head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo.

At the vigil, Governor Whitmer said that gun violence is a uniquely American problem.

“Too many places in our nation that are supposed to be about learning and community or joy have been shattered by bullets, stained by bloodshed,” Whitmer said. “The time for only prayers and thoughts are over.”

She referenced a message that was painted on the Rock on Tuesday that read: “How many more?” 

"Whatever you are feeling, it's all valid," Izzo told the crowd. "I cry in front of my team. I cry on national TV. Don't be afraid to show your emotions. Let's do a better job of taking care of each other. We need each other.”

After the speeches, several Native students went to the Rock and put down sema (tobacco) in gestures of prayer. Neely stood near the Rock with sage to smudge the space and students. For Neely, the vigil served as a part of healing for the Native American students who attend the university.

“For me, what happened hasn’t truly registered in my mind yet. I’m feeling the effects of the trauma, but I don’t yet have a way to address it,” Neely told me on Saturday. “But the outpouring of support from community members across the state has made everything just a little bit easier. We have had people dropping off and sending medicines, food, and other self-care items from as far as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

Given her position with Native News Online, I have had countless conversations with Neely about historical trauma. She was in the newsroom on the day the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report authored by Newland was released when there was not a dry eye in our newsroom. The report detailed physical, emotional, and sexual abuses that have translated in historical trauma for scores of Native Americans.

After the mass shooting I thought about how Neely and her generation of Native students now have another trauma–in addition to the generational trauma of Indian boarding schools–to carry in their hearts.

To Governor Whitmer’s point about gun violence being a uniquely American problem, it is time America addresses its obsession with assault weapons. I am not suggesting outlawing all guns–for Native Americans have long been hunters. 

I am talking about taking steps to ensure mentally ill people are not obtaining them to carry out their misguided aggressions that leave innocent people injured and dead. 

May the Creator grant protection to American students.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].