OGEMA, Minn. - Authorities are investigating the deaths of a mother and her two children in White Earth Village.
Community members have identified those found deceased as Emma LaRoque and her two children, the daughter and grandchildren of White Earth Public Safety Director Michael LaRoque.
The Becker County Sheriff’s Department and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension combed through the home along Highway 34 where the bodies were found, and said they responded to “an incident” at the home Monday afternoon.
The Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office released the names Wednesday, March 20, saying LaRoque, 28, died by suicide from a gunshot wound. Her children, 9-year-old Shane Woods and 4-year-old Frederick York, died of homicidal violence.
Based on the initial investigation, the case appears to be a murder-suicide, and investigators believe there's no threat to the public, said Jill Oliveira, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
“Everybody is in shock and awe,” said Liz King, a resident who lives in the community. “It’s terrible that this family of three had to be gone that soon.”
This tragedy comes on the heels of losing White Earth Tribal Chairman Terry Tibbetts, who lost his battle with cancer over the weekend. Tibbetts had been chairman of the Minnesota’s largest tribe since 2016. A lifelong resident of Naytahwaush, he attended elementary school there and then Mahnomen High School. He worked for the tribe for 33 years, 22 of those as a public works employee.
Until further notice, tribal vice chairman Eugene "Umsy" Tibbetts has taken over as chairman.
“We are experiencing extreme trauma and crisis, so we just want to be supportive to those who are immediately impacted,” said Verna Mikkelson, White Earth Mental Health Crisis Program coordinator. “(It’s) more than an individual can handle on a normal level.”
In fact, since mental health teams on the reservation are among those grieving the loss of people they knew and loved, multiple agencies are coming together to begin the healing process.
Senior White Earth Reservation Cultural Coordinator Merlin Deegan led a healing circle at the White Earth Community Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re helping the community heal from the trauma that has happened here in the last week,” said Deegan, adding that three other healing circles were also being held at the Rice Lake Community Center, Naytahwaush Sports Complex, and Pine Point Elderly Nutrition Center. “It’s a community effort. It’s not an individual thing.”
Deegan explained the ceremony as a way for people to come together and show support for one another, noting that the medicines and songs they use have been part of the Anishinaabe culture for many, many years. Though, he noted that the cedar wiping ceremony is just one step in the process of healing.
“We use buffalo and bear, we smoke the pipe, boil up the cedar, and boil up various medicines given to the Anishinaabe people a long, long time ago,” he said.
The cedar ceremony has been held monthly for the past four years on White Earth, and this was the first one open to the media, he said.
“What we do is, we wash them off to deal with their grief, because our community right now really needs something to grasp to move forward in a positive way,” said Deegan. “They do feel better, but it’s not a fix-all …. It takes time, because it takes time to get where we are at with our trauma.”
The ceremony includes smudging with sage, using eagle feathers to push away the negative energy that follows everyone, and wiping each person clean with cedar water. Women help women and men help men through the process. “Mother Earth taking care of us, is what it is,” said Stephanie Williams of White Earth.
“It’s meant to be a cleaning ceremony — it works different ways for different people,” said Derek Whidden of Detroit Lakes. “It’s meant to leave negativity at the door.” He said it was the fourth time he’s participated in the ceremony.
Deegan says many of the community members who come to healing ceremonies bring heavy emotions, and the ceremony does its part to heal people spiritually. Though he acknowledges that there are other aspects to mending grief that can not be ignored. For that reason, he says they were also offering mental health counseling at the ceremonies.
“We also have behavioral health that are also working in coordination with us. We understand that it’s not just the mental health but the spiritual aspect of us as human beings,” he said.
The community is doing their best to come together and offer support, while there are still few answers about the death of the police chief’s daughter and grandchildren. Deegan says community leaders will continue to meet throughout the week, and more healing ceremonies will be held.
As for the loss of Tribal Chairman Tibbetts, a visitation ceremony will begin at 6 p.m. with a wake service on Thursday, March 21, at Naytahwaush Charter School. His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Friday, March 22, at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Mahnomen and burial will be in Free Gospel Alliance Cemetery in Naytahwaush.