Another teacher from the reservation gets the Pine Ridge youth suicide epidemic into the national press. Joe Flood follows Dominique Fenton in writing up the nine Lakota youths who have killed themselves on Pine Ridge since December. But Flood’s New York Times report identifies a disturbing cause of those suicides: endemic child sexual abuse.
I’m a wasicu (Lakota for “white person”) from Massachusetts, but I’ve spent about half of the past decade living on the rez, working mostly as a teacher and archery coach. Within two weeks of starting my first job teaching high school English here, a veteran teacher told me something he thought was critical to understanding life on Pine Ridge: By the time they reach high school, most of the girls (and many boys, too) have been molested or raped.
His anecdotal observation seems to track with the available statistics. According to the United States Department of Justice, Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other Americans, and the numbers on Pine Ridge, one of the largest, poorest reservations in the country, appear to be even greater. “We started two clinics for reproductive health in the largest high schools on the reservation,” said Terry Friend, a midwife who works at the year-and-a-half-old Four Directions Clinic, which specializes in sexual assault and domestic abuse. “When I take a sexual history of a patient, I ask, ‘Have you had sex against your will?’ At the high schools, girls answered yes more than no.”
Numbers are harder to come by for boys, but local medical professionals estimate that they are also high, and that such rates of abuse can translate to high rates of suicide. One recent study found that nationally, teenage boys who were sexually assaulted were about 10 times more likely to attempt suicide, girls more than three times more likely [Joe Flood, “What’s Lurking Behind the Suicides?” New York Times, 2015.05.16].
The wasicu started this fire: Flood notes that our dragging Indian children to boarding schools far from their tiospaye subjected generations of vulnerable children to physical and sexual abuse. The victims brought that abuse back to the reservation.
Flood reports that the suicides come amidst increased awareness and efforts by health professionals, tribal and federal law enforcement, schools, and even peers to tackle sexual abuse. But as Flood reported last fall, Shannon County Schools got $50,000 from the feds for suicide recovery efforts, and here we are again.