While we’re talking about ways to fight the poverty and despair that drive the high youth suicide rates on South Dakota’s Indian reservations, Mr. Kurtz notices that First Lady Michelle Obama is talking about our responsibility to help Indian Country with these problems. Last week the White House and the Aspen Institute hosted a meeting to discuss Generation Indigenous, President Barack Obama’s initiative to help Indian youth.
In her remarks to last week’s White House gathering, Mrs. Obama recognized that young tribal members are not hopeless or paralyzed by external forces. On her visit to the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation last summer, she met young people who exemplify perseverance:
After losing her classmates to suicide, one young woman started volunteering at a youth program to help other kids who were struggling. One young man told us that when his family was struggling, he fended for himself for years, sleeping on friends’ couches until he was old enough to become a firefighter.
And that young man who had to leave college? Well, when he got back home, he discovered that his family problems were worse than he had thought. He found that his stepmother was on drugs and his four younger brothers were wandering the streets alone in the middle of the night. So at the age of 19, he stepped in and took over – and now, he’s back in college while raising four children all by himself.
And then there’s T.C.
He was the last young person to speak that day, and after telling us his story – how he was raised by a single father, how he’s lost so many people he loves, how his family struggles to get by – he then said to my husband “I know you face a lot as President of the United States, and I want to sing an encouragement song for all of us to keep going.”
After everything these young people had endured, T.C. wanted to sing a song for us [Michelle Obama, prepared remarks, Generation Indigenous meeting, 2015.04.08].
Native youth can be strong. They can choose healthy paths that enrich their lives and their tiospaye.
But Mrs. Obama says Native strength does not remove our obligation to help. We broke Indian Country:
And most of all, I want you to remember that supporting these young people isn’t just a nice thing to do, and it isn’t just a smart investment in their future, it is a solemn obligation that we as a nation have incurred.
You see, we need to be very clear about where the challenges in this community first started.
Folks in Indian Country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems. Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.
Let me offer just a few examples from our past, starting with how, back in 1830, we passed a law removing Native Americans from their homes and forcibly re-locating them to barren lands out west. The Trail of Tears was part of this process. Then we began separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools designed to strip them of all traces of their culture, language and history. And then our government started issuing what were known as “Civilization Regulations” – regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies and practices – so we literally made their culture illegal [Michelle Obama, 2015.04.08].
We thus must help fix Indian Country:
So given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this [Michelle Obama, 2015.04.08].
And just as we spent generations trying to wipe out Indian Country, we must spend generations helping rebuild it:
And we can’t just invest a million here and a million there, or come up with some five year or ten-year plan and think we’re going to make a real impact. This is truly about nation-building, and it will require fresh thinking and a massive infusion of resources over generations. That’s right, not just years, but generations [Michelle Obama, 2015.04.08].
Dig around the Web, and you can find some reactionaries trying to raise false flags by criticizing the First Lady for using the term “Indian Country,” even though it’s a common legal term used comfortably by American Indians themselves.
I can understand the urge to evade responsibility for problems in Indian Country. Our ancestors committed historical crimes of enormous magnitude, from which we continue to benefit. That enormous responsibility could overwhelm even a strong person.
But if Indian youth can overcome the problems on the reservation, we the lucky, privileged class can overcome the weight of history and help them.