Fellow English teacher Dominique Alan Fenton steps to the mic with the shockingly high numbers of youth suicide attempts on Pine Ridge:
Between December 1 and March 23, Pine Ridge Hospital treated 241 patients under 19 who actively planned, attempted or committed suicide. These numbers don’t account for unreported cases or for those who were treated in neighboring counties. At this rate, 37 young people in a county that only has 5,393 inhabitants under 18 will be gone by the end of 2015. Moreover, statistics from Pine Ridge Indian Health Services show teen suicide numbers have gradually increased over the last seven years. In the same four-month period last year, for example, there were no suicides in Pine Ridge. In 2012, only one [Dominique Alan Fenton, “Racism at Core of Native Teen Suicides in Pine Ridge,” Color Lines, 2015.04.02].
Why would so many children try to kill themselves? Hearkening to the themes laid out in Neal Eisenbraun’s March 25 essay on white-tribal relations, Fenton cites a racist system that would fence American Indian children out of our cities and our minds:
Many white South Dakotans are happy to have Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing on the state tourism website or spending money at their businesses. But when it comes to making space for contemporary Native voices, the barricades built around the reservation often don’t allow free passage. This is the future Native children see in many parts of this country. Add high-profile examples of racism, the daily unreported microaggressions Native kids face and the structural obstacles that extreme poverty creates, and you start to understand why suicide waves persist. This narrative is not unique to Pine Ridge, though it is certainly exacerbated by American colonialism’s legacy here. It can be found in other low-income communities of color in the United States too. In South Central Los Angeles, South Side Chicago or the South Bronx, the message kids get too often is: “You do not matter” [Fenton, 2015.04.02].
Reading some of the agitprop/journo-fluff about South Dakota’s status as the last state President Obama has to visit, I’ve thought that perhaps the President should re-enact the Summer White House that Calvin Coolidge held in the Black Hills in 1927. Reading Fenton, I wonder what would happen if the President held a Summer White House in Pine Ridge. If the President comes to South Dakota, let him spend a month in Pine Ridge. Let him walk each day to Fenton’s school, shake each student’s hand, and say, “See you tomorrow.”
Maybe we could also work in a Capital for a Day… or a Week… declaration from Governor Dennis Daugaard. Go speak to the children in danger. Go spend a week in Pine Ridge, Manderson, Wanblee, and Kyle, not so much to see what’s wrong there but to see what’s wrong in here, in our hearts. Think about what we can do to stop driving young people to their deaths.