Tribes Take on Youth Suicide With Skits, Ceremonies and Mustangs
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, youngsters perform skits they hope will lower their tribe’s youth-suicide rate. Playing with mustangs helps prevent self-harm among the children of the Gila River Indian Community. On the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, tribal members who’ve lost family to suicide heal by grieving together.
In each of those communities, youngsters kill themselves at a rate at least triple the United States average. “American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest suicide rates in the country,” said Richard McKeon, chief of the suicide prevention branch of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). To begin to abate this, Native groups received about a third of the agency’s recent round of Garrett Lee Smith grants, named for a Senator’s son who killed himself in 2003. “We want to help as many as tribes as possible reduce risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression,” McKeon added.
With the grants, the tribes will also bolster what scientists call protective factors. “For Native people, that means connecting with culture, an extremely important asset, as well as family and community,” explained McKeon.
Throughout Indian country, even very young children are included in prevention events and activities. “On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we can start talking about suicide when kids are in pre-school,” said Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, staffer for the Sweetgrass Project, a tribal suicide prevention program.
How do you broach such a subject with a five-year-old? “Our kindergarteners can tell you about how daddy hung himself,” DeCory responded. “They go to wakes and funerals. Suicide has become ‘normal’ to them.” So, she and other mentors on Pine Ridge face the crisis square on, with frank words and compassion. “We have to end the silence and walk out of the darkness together.”
Work similar to DeCory’s at Pine Ridge is found among people working for many tribes. Here are some of the ways they are helping their kids feel connected and valued.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: Healing together
“Forever is a long, long time / So I will forever remember you.” This sweet refrain floated over a November grieving ceremony on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. About 75 people had gathered for a meal and remembrance in a meeting room of the tribe’s hotel in Mobridge, South Dakota. Youth suicide at Standing Rock has been marked by not just high rates, but devastating clusters. Seven youngsters in one tiny community killed themselves during a six-week period in 2009. Some clusters have included dozens of attempts.
The singer said she had composed the plaint for relatives lost to suicide—a son, a nephew, a niece, cousins and uncles, deaths stretching back to the 1970s. Veronica Iron Thunder, who survived her own suicide attempts, sang a traditional Lakota song intended to restore damaged spirits.
A woman said she was finally able to accept her son’s death by suicide—though she said, as do many survivors, that she still couldn’t understand why it had happened. “After 15 years of mourning, I took flowers to his grave and said, ‘Goodbye, son.’”
“That was so important for others to hear,” said tribal wellness program director Arleata Snell. Some Standing Rock families have been overwhelmed by grief for years, unable to move on, she said. “Now, maybe they’ll see it is possible to heal.”
In a slideshow, the beautiful, smiling faces of those lost to suicide slid across the screen. Almost all were in their teens and twenties. The photographs radiated hope, but seeing them was also heartbreaking. A small indigenous community had lost so many of those who should have been leading it into the future. “We’re in this together, from prevention to healing,” said Snell. “We’ve trained youth how to recognize and report signs of suicide in their peers, and adults know the suicide-prevention protocol. Schools, health service, spiritual people, law enforcement—everyone here is helping stop youth suicide.”
These days, Standing Rock is experiencing an uneasy calm, with generally lower suicide numbers, said Snell. “If people are in crisis, they know who to call, whether it’s our program or the national hotline—1-800-273-TALK.” She also worked with the national call center to route calls from Standing Rock to a local counselor. Normally, Snell said, all callers from across the nation get a professional counselor who may be anywhere. But now, Standing Rock callers get a local person who understands how hard it is for people to get to places of assistance and refuge on big reservations, with their great poverty and little access to transport.
Snell and her staff of four are the wellness program’s eyes and ears in Standing Rock’s scattered communities. They respond immediately to suicide ideations (plans) or attempts, contacting parents if minors are involved and arranging transport to counseling or an emergency room.
Ira Taken Alive, chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Suicide Task Force called his tribe’s response to suicide “all hands on deck.” The task force meets monthly. Members have discussed the little-understood fact that suicides occur mostly in spring or fall. “It may be seasonal affective disorder and a response to changing amounts of sunlight, though no one really knows,” said Taken Alive.
They’ve talked about substance abuse. “One thing is sure,” Taken Alive said. “In 98 percent of attempts and completions here, alcohol or drugs were involved. We need to get ahead of the substance-abuse issue, to be proactive, not reactive.”
During the ceremony, the grieving families ate together, then entertainer and motivational speaker Mylo Redwater Smith closed the event. A 25-year-old Dakota from Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, he lightened the atmosphere with jokes, then launched into a fast-moving analysis of how generations of attempts to assimilate tribal people have meant loss upon loss—of homeland, language, cultural practices, the ability to support their families, good health and more.
As a result, Natives have taken up destructive behaviors—suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, drug use and other dysfunctions—and made them their “new normal,” Smith said. “All the negative things add up for our children. They say to themselves, ‘I’m alone. It’s too hard.’ They may give up.” For youngsters to overcome what he called the “reservation mentality,” they have to connect with their culture, Smith explained. “Take them to the sweat. Teach them to pray. In ceremony, I found who I was as a young Dakota man. That saved my life.”
Gerald Iron Shield closed the day with a prayer and traditional Lakota song. “We can become strong again,” he said.
Gila River Indian Community: Mustang sallies
Herds of wild horses roam free in the Gila River Indian Community’s stretch of the Sonoran Desert, south of Phoenix, Arizona. Mustangs play an important role in a tribal youth suicide-prevention and life-skills program, Kahv’Yoo (“horse”) Spirit, run by horseman Andy Miritello, with therapist Shawn Rodrigues.
The kids don’t hop aboard wild animals and try to ride them, cautioned Miritello. The program uses a ground-based method, EAGALA (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning), developed by the international nonprofit of the same name. Everything happens on the ground, with kids grooming and interacting with the animals, which include domesticated horses. This eliminates the issues of power and control over the animal that are essential to riding a horse, said Miritello.
Instead, people and animals are equals in a friendly, low-key herd sharing a corral. Mustangs bring a special element to the mix, said Miritello: “They’re more alert and sensitive than domesticated horses. They have to be to survive. It’s literally in a mustang’s DNA. They also project a powerful sense of life that inspires the children, who are from a horse culture.”
Some lessons involve observing the animals’ responses and figuring out if they relate to other aspects of your life, said Julie Jimenez, prevention administrator for the behavioral health department. “A child might observe, ‘That horse just walked away from me,’ then reveal that kids at school do the same thing. The therapist might ask, ‘How did you approach the horse (or the kids)?’ A conversation will develop from there.”
Handling a big animal is empowering, said Miritello. He described a girl who became increasingly confident as she haltered a horse and led it around with a rope. For the next step, she removed the rope and circled the corral, with the horse following freely, like an oversized friendly dog. “She was thrilled,” he recalled.
The children’s achievements in the corral give them optimism and encourage them to stay away from life-threatening behaviors, including drugs, alcohol and self-harm, according to Miritello. “They connect to self, peers, community and culture,” he said. Teachers have reported better school attendance and behavior among program participants.
All tribal youth aged 5 to 24 are eligible to participate in the once-a-week, eight-week sessions. Kahv’Yoo Spirit is among several Gila River suicide-prevention initiatives supported by state funding and the National Indian Health Board, said Jimenez. These include a summer culture camp and a coalition of providers and community members who get the prevention message out with block parties, a skateboarding competition and other events. Meanwhile, 400 adults have learned a protocol for recognizing and reporting signs of suicide.
Teen Kahv’Yoo Spirit participant Rodrigo Castellon said working with horses was transforming. “You see the world with different, more positive eyes.”
Oglala Sioux Tribe: Serious fun
Night had fallen, and 32 teens living in Pine Ridge High School’s dorm, in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, were seated around small tables in a common room. Each group was quietly discussing the many kinds of bad things that can happen to a person—learning a friend has been abused, coming home from school to find auntie drunk, flunking a test, getting ketchup on a prom dress. They ranked them from least to most serious.
This was one of the problem-solving lessons the teens will complete under the American Indian Life Skills Development curriculum, a suicide-prevention syllabus for Native youth that’s one of SAMHSA’s evidence-based (scientifically tested) practices. Charismatic, high-energy Tiny DeCory teaches the lessons through the tribe’s Sweetgrass Project, run by Lisa Schrader-Dillon. The program just received its second Garrett Lee Smith three-year grant. In the curriculum’s original incarnation—as Zuni Life Skills Development—it eliminated youth suicide at the pueblo for the 15 years it was in effect.
As the Pine Ridge teens ranked each list, they announced their results. Generally the groups agreed on the rankings, until four boys declared facial blemishes to be life’s greatest disaster, to shrieks of laughter from the other kids. “The issues are serious, but the way Tiny presents the material, the students don’t think of it as a ‘curriculum’,” said dorm manager Allie Bad Heart Bull, who offers meditation and other alternative healing practices to dorm residents.
“We’ve seen changes in behavior already,” said DeCory. “In the lessons, the teens have talked about solutions to all kinds of problems. They’ve become more communicative and seem stronger and happier.” Children on Pine Ridge have the capacity for great resilience, she said. “We’re working to make this their turnaround moment.”
The next day, DeCory’s youth theater group, B.E.A.R., performed for a packed crowd at another reservation high school. B.E.A.R is also under the Sweetgrass umbrella; the initials stand for Be Excited About Reading, while the name refers to cultural beliefs about bears’ wisdom and strength. The group hands out books and encourages literacy at its approximately four monthly shows on and off the reservation. “We started out to improve test scores,” said DeCory. It soon became apparent that B.E.A.R.’s youth audiences also wanted information about serious issues they face. The group’s kid-developed skits don’t pull any punches. They deal with teen pregnancy, coping with alcoholic relatives, suicide and other problems youngsters in their audiences face. They also provide information on where to go for help.
For its members, B.E.A.R. provides the all-important, life-saving sense of connection. After Erin Miller’s mom saw her perform, the two bonded powerfully. “We cried together,” said Erin, who’s 18. Shawn Keith, 23, has been with B.E.A.R. since he was a young teen. “It means everything to me,” he said.
Stephanie Woodard wrote this story, the second in a series on preventing Native youth suicide, with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism (FIJ.org) and The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships (ReportingOnHealth.org), a program of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
For the first story in the series, click here.
In the next article, we’ll look at suicide prevention in the northern-most reaches of the Alaskan Arctic, including a powerful new movie in production that documents Alaska Natives as they find healing in traditional lifeways.
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