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AP Catches up with Lakota Youth Suicide Epidemic

Pine Ridge English teacher Dominique Alan Fenton gets that Sioux Falls paper to run the article on youth suicide on the reservation that national advocacy website Color Lines ran on April 2Indian County Today covered the suicide epidemic in February; the Associated Press catches up today:

On Dec. 12, 2014, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself at his home on the reservation, a sprawling expanse of badlands on the South Dakota-Nebraska border. On Christmas Day, a 15-year-old girl was found dead, followed weeks later by a high school cheerleader. Two more teenagers took their lives in February and two more in March, along with several more attempts. The youngest to die was 12.

…”The situation has turned into an epidemic,” said Thomas Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose 24-year-old niece was among two adults who also committed suicide this winter. “There are a lot of reasons behind it. The bullying at schools, the high unemployment rate. Parents need to discipline the children” [“Impoverished SD Tribe Struggles to Stop Surge in Teen Suicides,” AP via MPR News, 2015.04.13].

Incredibly, some local kids are encouraging suicide:

In February, Poor Bear said, a parent came to him with an alarming Facebook post: Nooses hanging in trees near Porcupine, a community of about 1,000 people. Tribal police later took down four nooses, apparently left there as an invitation, but could not determine who was responsible.

“A lot of the older teenagers are encouraging the younger ones on Facebook, leaving messages that say you know, `You need to end your life and go to a different life,’ and that’s encouraging them to go commit suicide,” Poor Bear said [AP, 2015.04.13].

Notice that Poor Bear doesn’t mention a bunch of external cultural pressures; in these brief comments, he focuses on local responsibility. Indeed, no matter what discrimination and denigration we imperialists impose, every community and every individual has to find the strength to make his or her own choice… and the right choice. You’ve got to not bully others. You’ve got to not say stupid, insensitive things to your own friends and neighbors. And parents, yes, you have to rule with the heaviest loving hand you can to pull kids back from the rage and despair that bullying and larger cultural institutions cause.

But healthy individual choices depend on supporting a healthy cultural identity:

“We need to do something. We need to take action” to build the children’s pride in their identity, said Sheila Slow Bear, Ieisha Lefthand’s mother. The parents agreed to hold a ceremony to give interested students an Oglala Lakota name [AP, 2015.04.13].

Giving a child a Lakota name is likely only a small part of the broader cultural effort necessary to help Lakota teens realize their lives are worth living. Preventing suicide will take multiple, continual efforts on the reservation to build kids up. I don’t know how much we white folks can do to help build those kids up (although teacher Fenton is doing his part), but we can at least stop knocking them down.


  1. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-14 20:45

    I hate this. Children suiciding. I can understand an adult slowly dying of ALS who chooses suicide, but a child?! So tragic.

    It’s not that I don’t understand why a young person might feel hopeless to that degree. It’s a tragedy that should appall anyone aware of it and compel them to positive action.

    I know. My words didn’t really contribute anything. I just needed to vent my anguish at these things. Once you’ve been involved in such a tragedy, you never forget it.

  2. leslie 2015-04-15 00:43

    not sure contagion is cultural. anyone remember if pierre’s tragic contagion several years ago was about like this one?

    suicide is complex, science is lacking. here is a little recent bit about contagion:

    another: A clearer picture of how suicide “contagion” can happen is emerging – and prompting stronger efforts to guard against it.

    Compared with 10 years ago, the proliferation of prevention efforts among young people represents “a quantum leap forward,” says Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in New York.***Rather than seeing it as a taboo subject, prevention experts say, parents and school staff need to be better equipped to talk with young people about suicide – and to listen. Bringing it up in a constructive conversation will not plant the idea in kids’ minds, they say.

    There’s a growing understanding about both risk factors and protective factors – and one of the strongest protections against youth suicide is connection with a trusted adult.

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