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Suicide Surging Among Pine Ridge Youth

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.


  1. Bill Fleming 2015-04-04 10:29

    Excellent Cory. Sometimes the answer is to just show up. Be there. Witness.

  2. larry kurtz 2015-04-04 10:42

    Seriously, Cory?

    Chase Iron Eyes tweeted recently that if people want to help we should ask every Indian what they want and need instead of asking tribal authorities.

    The Black Hills are not for sale but the nations trapped in southern Dakota are owned enough money to secede from South Dakota and create a 51st State.

    People in the Oglala Lakota Nation and on Standing Rock want decolonization and the end of white occupation. Until President Obama dissolves the Black Hills National Forest and moves the land to the Park Service with tribal management like at Badlands National Park nothing on the rez will change.

    President Obama should leave the hangar at Ellsworth where the Secret Service would isolate him from the dickwads who live in Rapid City and hold a summit at Wounded Knee.

  3. bearcreekbat 2015-04-04 11:37

    This is a really distressing story. I fully agree that spending time in Pine Ridge might help policymakers understand that adopting and funding policies to improve economic conditions on the reservation would likely make a positive difference.

    I also wonder what affect Lakota spiritual beliefs have on a very depressed young mind. According to one web site, “The Lakota believe that the dead depart to a spirit world free of pain and suffering. . . .”

    If a young person is taught that through death he or she can access “a spirit world free of pain and suffering,” is it any wonder that an unhappy young person would think suicide is a rational response to the inequities and unhappiness that he or she sees all around?

  4. mike from iowa 2015-04-04 11:53

    Roger C, any chance you can get some of these kids to join in the conversation here. I,for one,would dearly love to hear their personal views.

  5. David Newquist 2015-04-04 13:32

    This problem is complex, but the underlying causes are dealt with by the earliest American Indian commentators such as Black Elk, Luther Standing Bear, Ella DeLoria, etc. Suicide is not unknown among the tribes. (Crazy Horse’s mother hung herself.) But the most significant cause for hopelessness is a people whose traditional value system concentrates on the welfare of its people. Chiefs in the plains tribes knew and accepted that their role would reduce them to poverty because they were expected to use their powers and their wealth to provide for the people. Children and the elderly were given special attention. Among Indian youth, as an attempt to deal with suicide on Standing Rock a few years ago, the old values are vague but linger as a source of hopelessness in a culture that elevates predatory capitalism to a god-inspired calling and condemns those who believe in the social welfare of all to the status of beggars and leeches. This is compounded by tribal governments that practice the worst aspects of American democracy, graft, corruption, and a viciously destructive personal politics.

    Business courses in our tribal colleges teach the rule of inequality that drives the American version of capitalism, when they should be reinventing an economic system that accommodates the value that everyone counts, or no one counts. The difference is that of system which dishonors all but a selected life and one which honors all life. There was hope in recent decades as many of us taught native American life and literature as college courses, but the humanities in our own colleges have been sacrificed to STEM courses and those dealing with the theory and practice of predatory capitalism. The intellectual and moral failures of the general culture reach deeply into the culture that the Indian youths struggle to know and understand. The residents of Honkeyville are very good at creating and spreading malice and hopelessness.

  6. Roger Cornelius 2015-04-04 14:07

    mike from iowa,
    I’m somewhat removed from a daily interaction with the young people on the reservation since I live in Rapid City, I have spread the word about Cory’s recent post.

  7. Roger Cornelius 2015-04-04 14:37

    There seems to be a need for some explanations and demands about the recent suicides on my home lands.

    In looking at different cultures, I always say that they have some commonalities; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Most of us that post here know the good of tribal culture, we also know the bad; alcoholism, poverty, drugs, etc.

    The ugly is far harder to discuss and maybe more difficult to understand.
    Shame is a part of the culture that is perplexing, parents and elders used it to discipline children, when adults get out of line it is often the Indian grandma that sets things right. You have not been shamed until an Indian grandma gets after you.
    When an adult male throws beer on an Indian child and taunts them with the hateful term “go back to the rez”, those children are being shamed. Indeed there are elements of historic intergenerational trauma that Neal Eisebraun so eloquently writes, but the personal insult is humiliating for a child.
    The “go back to rez” taunt also tells a child that they are not worthy enough to be among whites, American Horse children are simply not good enough to share a hockey game with whites. That is a terrible act of shaming, a white man, not your Indian grandma has shamed you.
    As Indian children carry this shame from off reservation racism, they have the shame burden at home. Their socio-economic status on the reservation may not be as great as one of their peers, there maybe domestic violence and related problems in the home, failing grades at school, etc.
    Indian children are not immune from bullying and to a large extent I’d suggest this is the core of the problem or at least one that can not be overlooked.
    My demand is this, IHS must step forward and start treating children with depression. I’m not certain of the staffing at their mental health clinic is in Pine Ridge, but I can certainly guess it is woefully short and underfunded.
    Teachers, parents, community leaders and children must be taught the signs of depression and when the slightest sign emerges, report it to someone that can prevent a death.
    When children are too ashamed to report that they maybe suicidal there must be signs of support and help for them.
    Every classroom on the reservation should fly a banner with this:

    Suicide Is A Permanent Solution To A Temporary Problem!!!

  8. Bill Fleming 2015-04-04 14:49

    Good post Roger. Thank you. here is a really good, friendly website that we should all know is out there. Best one I’ve seen.

  9. larry kurtz 2015-04-04 15:12

    Today, there continues to be a great deal of focus concerning tribal economic development; however, given the epidemic levels of chronic diseases present in our communities, its is a part of our fundamental inherent sovereignty and responsibility to ensure that our communities not only have access to a variety of good and healthy food, but that we are able to define our diets and shape our own food systems.

  10. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-04 19:23

    This is the perfect quote, from Cory: “not so much to see what’s wrong there but to see what’s wrong in here, in our hearts.”

    That’s the thing that bothers me most. How can people not care about other human beings? How can they convince themselves that other people are somehow less than human? I understand feeling overwhelmed by numbers, distance, etc. But that’s not the same as no compassion. What is wrong with those people? I guess that is what sociopathy or psychopathy is.

    Roger, Dr. Newquist, Bill, others – it’s encouraging to hear from the majority of Americans who do care about the human race, rather than only themselves and people very similar.

  11. Roger Elgersma 2015-04-04 19:58

    Blaming their religion for believing in a perfect afterlife is strange since Christianity teaches exactly the same thing. So the Native suicide rate is from something other than their religion.

  12. Roger Elgersma 2015-04-04 20:24

    Someone who grew up in Rapid City told me that I do not understand since the law is not supposed to protect the Natives since they have their own ways to deal with things.
    If they are not safe without doing crime to deal with threats and assaults, then they will have a higher incarceration rate. This has resulted in being listed as criminals. This is not good for the children’s self esteem or for family unity if Dad is in jail.
    When historically the whites made the Natives unsafe and now when a white assaults children and only is charged with disorderly conduct rather than assault, then there is no justice. Why was throwing beer an assault? If you throw something that hits another person, that is assault. When the assault results in mental abuse which is what it was, then the intent had bad results. Ignorance is not an excuse when being charged in court. Those kids were assaulted and need to know that justice happens when this happens or they will not feel safe in the world. Because justice has not been done in the past some of the population seems to be ignorant to the evil of their own actions. The irony of this is that the perpetrator was guilty of exactly what his prejudice was accusing innocent kids of being. The other irony is that this person sells beer himself. The depth and stupidity of his hypocrisy knows no bounds.
    Any time one judges an individual or part of a group by ones opinion of a larger group, then there is both prejudice and the real possibility of misjudging. There seems to be a number of people in Rapid City, notice I did not assume all those people are bad, that need to learn what prejudice is.
    The Bible is quite clear about not judging. Some who tell me not to judge when they did something that was obviously bad, I do tell them not to expect me to throw out my knowledge of right vs wrong just because they are there. But misjudging is not only judging but assassinating another persons reputation mistakenly. Twards the end of the beatitudes it says that is what happened to the prophets of God. It says that all manner of evil was said against them wrongly in God’s name. That means that well intentioned people blew it real bad. Just like when good kids get blamed for something they did not do.

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-04 20:49

    You make a good point about religion Roger. I can’t think of one off hand that doesn’t promise a wonderful afterlife. Heaven, 72 virgins, nirvana. Bill knows much more than I do about Buddhism, Hinduism and a few others, so I’ll shut up about them.

    Pagan religions generally make promises about a better life after death too. Some say you’ll join your predecessors, others promote an absence of suffering.

    Since I don’t want to sidetrack this post on a very important topic, I’ll save more about the coercive nature of religion for some other time.

  14. Steve Hickey 2015-04-04 20:56

    My friends there report to me a number of these kids were told to kill themselves by a dark figure they call slender man. He’s been appearing to teenagers. Anyone else heard about this happening? Apparently it’s an evil internet personally from some video game. That world is real and it’s not just systemic hopelessness that pushes a young generation over the edge. The spirit of death is real and I have a variety of stories to tell about demonic spirits, some from my years with natives on the Rez. The answers aren’t just social solutions, there are spiritual realities too. Need help from one who conquered death. Happy Easter to all.

  15. Steve Hickey 2015-04-04 21:03

    Internet *personality*

    I think some girls on the east coast killed a friend last year because slender man told them to do it. Probably a link on Google somewhere.

  16. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-04 21:51

    Hickey, the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin was a big and horrific story here. One girl was 12 and I believe the other was 13. They stabbed a classmate to death to get Slender Man’s approval. When the older girl goes to trial, she will be in adult court. The younger one has been sentenced to 6 years in juvenile, and will undergo extensive mental health work during that time.

    When this killing was reported it was the first that the vast majority of folks had heard of Slender Man. I still don’t really understand what that’s all about, but the results in this instance created a nightmare for 3 families and thousands of children that age. Many children reported being too terrified to go to school. It’s been a nightmare.

  17. Bill Fleming 2015-04-05 08:49

    Deb, this is perhaps what you’re referencing. There is an aspect of the human psyche that appears to be common in all religions/belief systems, the difference from one religion to another being mostly a matter of how the story goes. (a.k.a. Dogma.)

    For an astonishing contemporary examination of the material, I recommend Cormack McCarthy’s play/nover ‘The Sunset Limited.’ Warning, it’s not for the weak of heart. Those wishing to avoid putting themselves through an extremely trying literary ordeal could perhaps just trust Jung when he says ‘mankind cannot stand a meaningless life.’

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-05 09:34

    Slender Man—fascinating. Steve, how best do we fight the bogeyman? Do we empower the bogeyman by granting his existence? Or do we miss a chance to help by rejecting what the kids have worked themselves into believing? Can any policymakers respond to the bogeyman? Or does the response to the side of the story raised by Steve require the action of holy men and holy women from both sides of the reservation line?

  19. mike from iowa 2015-04-05 10:08

    Have we failed our children and grandchildren that badly? Slender Man?

  20. barry freed 2015-04-06 08:12

    Another reason to deny the Opt-out. The District’s absolute failure in the Native drop out rate contributes to this sense of hopelessness and suicide. The District has failed in stemming drop out numbers, even when Ellsworth was at its peak in funding RC Schools, so it doesn’t appear to be a money issue. How many, compared to the general population, Native star athletes are allowed to quietly drop out without fervent persuasion to stay in school?

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-06 08:22

    Barry, first, your comment assumes the suicide problem exists in Rapid City as well as Pine Ridge. Do we have numbers on youth suicide in Rapid City? Do we have data connecting Pine Ridge suicide attempts with academic performance in the Rapid City district?

    If we get past those questions, if there is a connection between RCAS performance and American Indian youth despair, then in this case, should we respond to failure by forcing the school to work with fewer resources? Might this be a situation where we do better to say, “O.K., here’s more money, now by gum get these results?” Remember that Supt. Mitchell said this opt-out doesn’t increase funding for any program; it just keeps the district from having to make another round of cuts.

  22. MD 2015-04-06 15:44

    I had the chance to visit with the Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director while I was visiting the ND legislature last month. I was quite amused at how many times he mentioned tribal/state government relations in SD as examples of what not to do (Not that ND has perfected the art either).
    Like Steve Hickey has suggested before, it is time for a reconciliation commission that works honestly to admit our mistakes and work towards healing. Continuing to hide behind ignorance and the guise that everything is provided for through the federal government and casinos and that the SD government and our population has essentially no role in the game is faulty logic that is only making things worse. The blood is on all of our hands.

  23. Nichole Colsch 2015-04-07 21:17

    These heartbreaking statistics and the discussion of the hopelessness that underlies the issue remind me so much of the work of Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has spent the last three decades working with “recovering” gang members in Los Angeles. He founded Homeboy Industries in order to help former gang members, most of which were virtually unemployable high school dropouts with felony records, find a job, get therapy, get gang tattoos removed, and begin to build a sense of hope most of them never had in the first place. He speaks of the need for many of these young men and women to repair a broken sense of attachment and to find kinship with their coworkers (even though many are former gang rivals). While clearly the populations involved in these two scenarios are vastly different, the discussion of what drives these young folks to suicide show some pretty striking parallels. Father Boyle has been interviewed extensively over the years, and he gave a particularly moving speech at the Westminster Town Hall Forum at Westminster Presbyterian in the Twin Cities several years back. His book, “Tatoos on the Heart,” is the most moving piece of autobiographical/spiritual writing I’ve encountered in many years. Well worth a read if you get the chance. Sorry for the rambling comment; I have just been reading and listening to Father Boyle’s work again lately, and the parallels struck me, so I thought I might share.

  24. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-07 21:35

    MD, I get so tired of our being the counterexample, the “how not to.” South Dakota can be better than that. We must strive to be better than that.

  25. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-07 21:36

    No apology necessary, Nichole. I enjoy a good ramble aroused by parallels. Could Father Boyle’s experience be instructive on the rez?

  26. Curt 2015-04-08 00:25

    Does SD have a problem with race relations? You decide.
    If yes, what should we do? Do you think we might benefit from leadership on that issue? Why are we still waiting? Is it because we don’t have a problem? Or is leadership the missing ingredient? You decide.

  27. Jenny 2015-04-08 07:41

    This is just another stark difference between MN and SD. In MN, our good governor would call for a healthcare crisis intervention.
    In SD there is just embarrassing silence.

  28. Nichole Colsch 2015-04-08 21:05

    Father Boyle’s work is, technically, part of his work as a Catholic priest, though gang members need not profess any particular faith in order to recieve help, and his work seems to be incredibly inter-faith and service oriented in nature. That said, I’m not sure how the spiritual side of what Homeboy Industries does would intersect with belief systems in native communities. Overall, it seems the focus at Homeboy is in establishing a community and a sense of kinship among recovering and struggling former gang members. The stories of the hope these men and women have found and the change they have made in their families and communities are truly inspiring. I have visions of some kind of cultural exchange between these two communities, as a sort of experiment in “exporting” some of that hard-won urban hope to struggling rural reservation communities here in our own backyard, but perhaps I am just a naive, bleeding heart with a pie in the sky notion that change is possible through kinship among those who have struggled and have managed to find hope and success in spite of terrible odds.

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