"And just this past year, my sisters... we lost 3 people to suicide" -- Kelsey Richards, an American teenager.
Every day in 2008, more than one young person tried to kill themselves in this place.
Can you guess the location of this chronicle?
It's on the Oglala Sioux's Pine Ridge reservation, where some of our venerable kossacks have spent time as part of the American Indian Movement or in their travels and advocacy for the most marginalized Americans.
A remarkable piece of reporting...
Remarkable because it doesn't happen in the context of the major corporate networks. In fact, I often meet Europeans who've seen how native people sometimes live and know what happened to us, when 99% of the Americans I know (and I know many people, in multiple states) have no first-hand knowledge and poor, if any, understanding.
The propaganda system in this country foists an effective veil over American Indians. Even our continued existence remains a mystery, in face of genocide and destruction, poverty and division. Bigots and crooks threaten our identities constantly with nary a peep of protest. Sarah Palin tried to reduce Alaska Native Americans to unprecedented marginalization: a diabetic "life" of expensive, shipped-in, sugary foods by a regressive curtailing of subsistence hunting and fishing. Limiting those very foods that ANs have evolved to eat over 10 millenia, just to enrich her big industry friends! Or John McCain stealing the Dine and Hopi peoples' legal rights. Middle class environmentalists had hardly any care for the impact of ANWR drilling on the Gwich'in people, only for a "middle class" construction of recreation-museum wilderness that is not in keeping with 10,000 years of American history. George Bush doesn't understand that we have legal nations. With so many troubles for Indian Country, who's surprised the media doesn't give a lick about our suicides?
Many factors go into the prevalence of suicide--in 2004, the 8th leading cause of death--among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Others have covered the causes better--including poverty but also generational trauma. According to one study, racial prejudice is not only an ever-present trauma but a contributing factor in suicide.
What matters to me is that I feel like we are continually being forgotten between yet another cycle of cynical, exploitive and race-baiting media coverage. Would white suburbanites deal with these unemployment numbers? Would the LGBT community be this reserved about the daily drumbeat of death? No.
Pine Ridge is an extreme example, but almost all of Indian Country has depressed levels of employment. Almost all corners of Indian Country have extremely high poverty. Our economies often do resemble depressions. And our suicide rate is high as a racial group.
But there's a bigger picture. When covering American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian issues, keep in mind that in spite of the doom yawning before us we have survived for 518 years of genocide. Non-stop. I am of the 7th generation of descent since the war that split our tribe in two and began the slow death. Massacre, malnourishment, missionaries, assimilation, the Dawes Act and forced sterilizations all hurt my ancestors. Not few died, and our 2010 population is at levels comparable to 150 years ago. Down that ethnocidal road, the Termination Act shaped both my life and that of my mother. This is probably the last generation with any fluent speakers of our language--my mother and I did not have that opportunity in part because of those missionaries, the US government, and the Termination Act. Yet in my few years I have witnessed increasing numbers of parents teaching their children the "red road": trying to give them positive things frequently denied in their own youth. Be it traditional dancing and drumming, hunting and fishing, language, food, culture or our relationship with the land--these remnants of our ways are inseparable from being Indian or native more so than appearance or blood. Some, though not all, of our depression seems to stem from the problem of having lost much of our identity and knowledge, while at the same time we can access few resources to address the 21st century.
So you see, it's not that we are so weak and so pitiful. We are strong enough to have survived the worst. We're at our strongest when our heritage can survive. So far, we've done it often (not solely) on our own, divided up, poor and under constant attack.
The rest of America must stop ignoring us and denying us if we are to survive as intact peoples. Our children are dying.
You can learn more about the Sweetgrass Project mentioned in the video--which fights suicide on Pine Ridge--and contact them via this link.
Updated: Thank you. Some of you work in the psychiatric/mental health communities, or have experience or have read about these matters before. Please teach us what you know. I have played teacher for the little that I know, but now it's your turn. This is a community.