Moon Roberts: Suicideby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
A young man who seemed destined to be a leader is overwhelmed by the needs of his people.
Cass Lake, Minn. — Gregory "Moon" Roberts had a path laid out for him before he could walk. His father Lyman was Anishinaabe, his mother Sue is white. They traveled with their son to powwows, and to learn at the drums of Anishinaabe spiritual leaders in Canada and the United States.
He was given a drum and a pipe as a young boy, and taught that traditional values meant always putting others before yourself, and sharing whatever you had.
DESTINED TO BE A LEADER
When he was a high school junior, Moon Roberts saw life clearly.
"I'm going to college, then to law school, then I'm coming back to run for White Earth tribal chairman," Roberts said at the time.
By the time he was a teenager, Moon was heavily involved in the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, an organization that targets racism. He traveled the country meeting famous activists, and speaking at anti-racism workshops in places like New Orleans, California and Boston.
In 2003 he spoke to a group of young students at a California workshop, and talked about the responsibility he was given by tribal elders.
"They always told me that by the time you were able to do something, you had a responsibility. And we have responsibility today to our people and our society," said Roberts. "If we want change, we can't just wait for somebody else to make change for us, we have to make it."
Moon Roberts felt a responsibility to challenge racism. But he was more troubled by the internal strife he saw destroying Indian people.
There's an often-told story in Indian Country about crabs in a bucket. Moon Roberts used the story to illustrate life on a reservation.
"You shake up that bucket of crabs, and they start to fight, and after awhile they try to get out. And to get out they crawl over the backs of the other crabs. And when one crab is almost out of the bucket, the other crabs pull him back down," said Roberts. "It's the cycle going on today with materialistic things. If you get a new pair of Jordan shoes, they don't care what they do, they'll shoot you or beat you up, but they're going to take away your shoes."
"I question whether things will ever change, I question every night and every day," said Roberts. "But as long as I can keep achieving things, and there's not a time I think about it long enough to give up, it'll get easier."
IT'S HARD TO LEAVE HOME
In 2002, Roberts left home to start college at Northern Kentucky University.
His life didn't get easier. He struggled with school. He fell in love and had a daughter. He was far away from his supportive family.
Sue Roberts says elders had warned her son about the dangers of being far away from his people. She says they told him the power of his bear clan couldn't protect him far from home.
Then Lyman Roberts fell ill with terminal cancer. Moon left school and returned home to spend time with his dad. Sue Roberts says her son never accepted his dad's death. He took a job helping teach kids with emotional and behavioral problems, at the Cass Lake-Bena school.
Mark Kingbird, an Ojibwe language instructor at the school, rented a room to Moon Roberts, and he says the two became as close as brothers.
"He loved his job. He loved working with the kids. Anything he could do for the kids he always did. He always stayed late after school just to be with the kids. Whether it was playing basketball or helping them with their math or a science project. His life was helping people," said Kingbird.
But Moon Roberts carried a heavy burden, according to Mark Kingbird. He felt a responsibility to always do more to help his people. He confided to Kingbird that he wasn't ready to shoulder the leadership responsibility he carried.
"I'm still just a kid," he told Kingbird, who says he reassured the younger man, "You'll know in your heart when you're ready."
TOO HEAVY A BURDEN?
But Roberts struggled with the overwhelming need around him. He took it hard when Brandon Humphrey, a student he'd helped tutor, was shot to death one night just down the street.
He worried about the other kids at school.
"Every day he'd come home and kinda be stressing about something. 'I could have done this, or done this,'" says Kingbird, who advised Roberts, "Well, there's always tomorrow, just let it go."
As the winter break approached, Roberts made plans to travel to Kentucky to visit his girlfriend and daughter. He was torn between them, and the Cass Lake kids who looked up to him and needed him.
On a stormy morning in November 2005, Mark Kingbird heard Roberts having an angry conversation on the phone. Then Roberts pulled on his coat and gloves and headed for the door.
"I asked him, 'Where are you going?' 'Going to have a smoke, maybe go for a walk,' he said. I said, 'You all right?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm all right bro, You don't have to worry about me, man,'" said Kingbird.
A few minutes later Mark Kingbird drove to a Cass Lake station to put gas in his van. There he heard the news -- someone had been hit by a semi out on the highway. His heart sinking, he raced down the highway to the accident scene.
"I knew the cop that was there. He said,' Mark, you don't want to go over there, not right now. Get yourself together.' I said, 'Man, tell me that ain't Moon.' 'Yeah it is,' he said. I just broke down right there," recalled Kingbird.
Police say Moon Roberts walked in front of the truck. The official report says he left a suicide note.
The death hit the community hard. Some of Roberts' students refused to come to school. Mark Kingbird says many kids called him, troubled by dreams about Moon Roberts. His mother and many friends simply can't believe that's how his life ended.
Mark Kingbird found his answers in a dream.
"He came to me in that dream. We were sitting in my classroom, he came in with a smile, but it was a kind of sad smile. I asked him, 'What's wrong?' 'Nothing bro, I'm fine, don't worry about me, man,' he said. I said, 'No, something's wrong. Tell me, I know something's wrong.' He told me, 'Bro, I would have never done what I done if I knew this many people loved me.' I said, 'Yeah, a lot of people miss you, but you have to go. I always told you we never say goodbye. Giga-waabamin minawaa. I'll see you later.' And I will see him again," said Kingbird.
A LOT OF "COULDA BEENS"
Sue Roberts says she's heard from dozens of people across the country who've told her stories about how her son touched their lives. That helps ease her grief.
She says some people blame her for her son's death. They say she stole his childhood, and placed too heavy a burden on a young man.
"I'm just proud of the fact we did what we thought would give him an opportunity most Native kids don't get, and that by giving him that opportunity he would give opportunities to other Native kids," said Roberts. "And he's done that. In his short life he's done that."
"I know that he made a positive impact in his short life. And if that's all he was put on this earth for, then the Creator knew what he was doing," said Sue Roberts.
Roberts is working to start a foundation that will honor her son, by giving other Indian kids a chance to learn how to be leaders.
Mark Kingbird says he hopes something good comes out of Moon Roberts' death.
"He picked up a lot of people. Just seeing his smile. He always had a smile, even if he wasn't feeling good," said Kingbird. "If he was feeling down, he'd hide that to cheer somebody else up. I think that's a legacy everyone that knew him will remember."
"He was so young and had so many things going for him. He would have been one of our leaders in the future," said Kingbird, his voice breaking. "There's a lot of coulda beens."
Dan Gunderson is based in Moorhead, Minn.