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Youth Suicides Stem from Sexual Abuse, Says Pine Ridge Teacher/Author

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.


  1. mike from iowa 2015-05-17 18:52

    This is wrong in so many ways.

  2. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-17 20:11

    This sickens me. Sexual assaults of children are so much more common than anyone wants to acknowledge and the results are horrendous. Suicide is the extreme, but frequently victims don’t complete educations, have high imprisonment rates, and abuse drugs and alcohol.

    I think there is some merit in the theory of the culpability of the boarding school system, but that must not hold back action. Also, it is critical to remember that while most child molesters were abused as children, most of those abused as children do not become child molesters.

  3. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-17 20:14

    BTW, there is a very effective method for greatly reducing the mental and emotional harm of assault:

    Timely, effective prosecution of the perpetrator, including social condemnation of his actions.

  4. Jeff Barth 2015-05-17 23:13

    I wonder if we have a sufficient quantity of rape kits on the Reservations and if the Tribal and Federal law enforcement folk know how to use them. And… do they use them?

  5. Spencer 2015-05-18 16:24

    What do you do when there are no more Catholic priests and missionaries to kick around anymore? I guess then you just have look introspectively for all that blame. Floating the idea out there that somehow or some way that this may be a related occurrence, even if generations removed, would have to be the very definition of grasping at straws. That would be like saying that ELCA pastors that are down with just about anything these days are the cause of America’s moral decline. Now clearly that would be a gross over simplification of a very complex issue. That’s nice that they have a Massachusetts liberal trained to accept being called racial slurs like “wasicu.” I wonder if they trained him to do tricks too.

  6. millie blue bird 2016-05-25 10:44

    Its true.Sexual abuse is the biggest kept secret.No one wants to listen let alone report it.Take for instance,the case involving some family members that I know whoTOLD and were beaten for it and were called liars.They were victimized by KENNETH MARSHALL (from the Martin area) who was tried and convicted it.To this day no one has offered an apology.Kenneth is dead and suffered in his last last days while his victims have ongoing mental issues….

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