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Five suicides in the past two months have shaken the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Spate of Youth Suicides Shake Pine Ridge Reservation

Alysa Landry

Five suicides in the past two months have shaken the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Since mid-December, five Oglala Sioux youths between the ages of 12 and 15 have committed suicide on this 3,500-square-mile reservation in South Dakota. That includes three deaths since January 31, and officials are reporting additional suicide attempts.

“Right now we’re just trying to get a handle on it,” said Angie Sam, director of the tribe’s Sweet Grass Suicide Prevention Program. “We’re working with families of those who completed suicide, or those who have attempted, or those who are exhibiting ideation. At this point, we’re responding very aggressively.”

Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, a training outreach coordinator for Sweet Grass, said suicide often is an impulsive action or a “momentary solution.” DeCory, who has worked with youth in Pine Ridge for more than a decade, is reaching out to parents, grandparents and communities for help.

“The families are mourning and the kids are hurting,” she said. “The answer is within us. We’ve got to stop burying these kids.”

None of the recent suicides is believed to be alcohol- or drug-related, DeCory said. She points to other longstanding social issues that may be contributing factors—things like poverty, bullying or tenuous family relationships.

“Being a teenager is hard,” she said. “Being raised by your great-grandma because your parents aren’t around, that’s a hard life. You don’t stay young long on the reservation. You have to grow up pretty fast.”

Organizations like Sweet Grass are working to reach youths at risk of suicide and to educate families across the reservation.

“We’re reaching out to kids as young as second grade,” DeCory said. “We’re knocking on doors the old-fashioned way and giving out pamphlets with resources and information. If we’re going to end this, we have to do it together.”

Allison Morrisette lost her 13-year-old cousin to suicide on February 9. A seventh-grader on the Pine Ridge reservation, the teen was a talented basketball player who enjoyed being with her family.

“Everyone remembers her as always smiling,” Morrisette said. “She was quiet around people she didn’t know, but around us she was happy and energetic.”

Believing the teen was bullied at school and on social media, the family contacted the FBI.

“We think there was cyber bullying,” Morrisette said. “It was really shocking. We never expected her to do this.”

Kyle Loven, chief division council for the Minneapolis office of the FBI, confirmed that multiple suicides have occurred on the reservation in recent months, but declined to comment about any ongoing investigations.

“Anytime there’s a death on the reservation, we are typically notified,” he said. “As far as if and when there’s an FBI investigation, that depends on the surrounding circumstances. I can say we have been and are in communication with tribal authorities.”

Sam is urging anyone who may be thinking about suicide to seek help. She also encourages everyone to watch for warning signs in others. These warning signs include talking about suicide, talking about feeling hopeless or being a burden, extreme moods swings, risky behavior or an increase in alcohol or drug use.

Need to talk? The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free resource available 24 hours a day at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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Waquashim's picture
Submitted by Waquashim on
This whole suicide thing is a tragedy that we as native people have to come together to over come. We don't need groups or social media, we need the community we, love, and respect from others while we're at home. I'm an 18 year old Narragansett Tribe member and trust me I've been there. I've been at the point where I thought my life wasn't going anywhere, my family didn't notice I was getting close to the edge. I thought it would of been better to off myself then try to fight through these situations I was dealt with. To be honest, the only reason why I am here today is because of people who I surrounded myself with. Nobody knew I was suicidal and nobody to this day knows, but I started surrounding myself with positive people and finding hobbies to keep me distracted from the catastrophes in my life. I still have those thoughts from time to time, I'm attending job corps in Vermont right now and its getting harder but I know that if I keep surrounding myself with people that love and respect me that I can pull through these tough patches in my life. I encourage other people, on and off the reservations to love and respect one another and to be each other's reason to keep pushing on. To all the other youths of my generation, you are not alone. Remember that there's always someone who is struggling too. Don't give up and keep on fighting!

bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
Some forty years ago, I learned that a majority of people have thought of suicide at some point in their life. But most people take an objective look at it and are able to determine that it is neither a solution or a rational way to approach their seemingly overwhelming demons. How many of us have actually brought the topic up for family discussion? Could it be that this problem has grown largely due to the fact that it has not been wholly accepted as our community's problem. Everyone in any given tribal community owns this problem. If you have family, its your problem. Its not the school's problem, church's problem, tribal council's problem or a problem of only certain families. Bright young minds on the outside often times conceal emotions raging within. The sad part is that there is no immediate fix-its because it has developed over time and has established roots. I thought that tribes should unite and create a Suicide Prevention Hotline for Tribal Nations. Why? Because we are all family. No tribe is alone in this fight. Indian country is suffering from an illness that has been festering for decades. And now it has swelled and we all know of someone who is no longer with us because there were no tell-tale signs to stop the suicide - not even long enough for family or friends to step in and help get the appropriate help. There will be conferences and workshops on suicide on tribal reservations and out of these sobering experiences, we should not accept anything less than formulated plans and steps on what will be done in the coming days. How many Native Americans die each day or week from suicide? Did you ever think about it? How did you overcome it? What can you tell others that would be helpful? Would you give time to volunteer to be trained on how to talk to a potential suicide victim? Have you heard of copy cat suicide? Do you know if it can be stopped? The questions are endless and the answers are not all black and white. It is time for Indian country to rise up and declare "War on Suicide." Will you step foward and be a leader?

LaReina Yaz
LaReina Yaz
Submitted by LaReina Yaz on
This is disheartening! Yes I do think the parents need help getting their lives together. As many children are being brought up by their grandparents. Which is also elder abuse. I worked with at risk youth for 6 years and many of them wish they had parents. Grandparents getting tired of tending to grandchildren with no support. Where is the money the tribe is receiving going to?