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Tribal Leaders Are Looking For Ways To End A Crisis Of Youth Suicides

This Sept. 8, 2012, photo shows a playground on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KRISTI EATON
This Sept. 8, 2012, photo shows a playground on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KRISTI EATON

Since December, 14 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe between the ages of 12 and 24 have committed suicide. During the same time period, 176 youth living on the tribe’s sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota attempted suicide and 229 more had suicidal ideations and were treated by the Indian Health Service.

Tribal council member C.J. Clifford shared the devastating statistics with members of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday during a hearing focused on ways to end the recent crisis of Native youth suicides and their effects on Native American communities.

“These are our children and we cannot bear to lose anymore,” he said in his testimony. “When we lose one child, it hurts the spirit and soul of every one of our people.”

In February, the president of the tribe declared a state of emergency, the second time the tribe has taken such an extreme measure since 2010. It was around that time four months ago that Pastor John Two Bulls, who works with youth on the reservation, was tipped off about a planned group suicide. He frantically drove to the location, and when he got to the wooded area, he saw ropes hanging from tree branches.

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“I was thankful that we were able to get there without finding anybody hanging from those ropes,” pastor John Two Bulls told the New York Times.

Clifford told that story and others on Wednesday before members of the Senate. “We are struggling,” he said. “We need the resources to get out in front of the problem.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it is giving Pine Ridge School $218,000 in emergency funds to help its students deal with the mental health issues associated with the recent losses. The money will be put toward efforts like hiring counselors and social workers and will be used to help the students through holistic healing.

While the funding is necessary to deal with the immediate effects of the recent string of suicides, tribal leaders said they need more sustained support. During the hearing, Clifford and the chairman of Minnesota’s Red Lake Bank of Chippewa Indians, Darrell Seki Sr., discussed the underlying problems on their reservations that are causing their youth to end their own lives.

Substance abuse and poverty are far more prevalent on Native American tribes than other U.S. communities. Clifford said the rate of unemployment on his tribe is above 70 percent, 60 percent of students do not graduate from high school and the life expectancy is only 50 years. Native American children also face disproportionally high rates of abuse and neglect and most of them do not receive any treatment for those issues. A report released last year concluded that their lives are being “destroyed by relentless violence and trauma.”

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Clifford told Congress that his tribe needs more funding for youth opportunity, mental health programs and federal housing grants to deal with overcrowding in tribal homes. “We need long-term solutions, not a quick band aid today,” he said.

Seki also said that his tribe needs more sustained funding to hire counselors and other mental health professionals. Ten years ago, the tribe received an emergency funding grant after a school shooting on the reservation left ten people dead. The counselors put in the schools made “a huge difference,” he said.

“Congress needs to find way to remove obstacles imposed on tribes through the process of short-term grants,” Seki said. “Only sustained funding of long-term programs will end suicides on Indian County. Red Lake has a plan to do so, but it will need sustained funding.”

A mental health professional echoed the tribal leaders’ comments, as did members of Congress.

“It our job to fight for what we know works,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs. “I apologize on behalf, well I can only apologize for myself that we have not been doing enough for your kids and for you.”