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Life And Death On The Rez

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    Feb. 9, 2007 Life And Death On The Rez Social Breakdown Of Tribal Culture Revealed In Youth Suicides By: Lisa Hare _lisa.hare@yankton.net_
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 10, 2007
      Feb. 9, 2007

      Life And Death On The Rez

      Social Breakdown Of Tribal Culture Revealed In Youth Suicides

      By: Lisa Hare
      _lisa.hare@..._ (mailto:lisa.hare@...)


      SANTEE, Neb. -- Life on the rez isn't easy.
      Just ask anyone who lives there, or those who know someone who has died
      there -- by taking their own life.
      "It's a hard thing to talk about," said "Joe," a Santee Sioux tribal member
      who did not want his real name disclosed. "Things like this didn't use to
      happen to our people; we didn't use to have a lot of the problems that we face
      today -- child abuse, domestic violence -- because everybody had a place and
      there were social repercussions for those things."
      But statistics show, suicide rates among Native Americans far exceed national
      According to the American Association of Suicidology, there are currently
      more than 30,000 suicides annually in the U.S. That equates to approximately 83
      per day; 1 suicide every 17 minutes, with 12 out of every 100,000 people
      killing themselves.
      As the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, suicide is the
      third leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24.
      Though caucasian suicide rates are twice as high as non-whites, Native
      Americans are the ethnic group with the highest overall suicide rate.
      A study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
      among Native Americans revealed the suicide rate for Native Americans is 1.5
      time greater than the rate for all Americans.
      For male Native Americans ages 15-24, suicide is the second leading cause of
      Also the Aberdeen study area -- which included all of North Dakota, South
      Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa -- was among the nation's highest suicide rate
      regions for Native Americans, with 25-30 suicides per 100,000 -- more than twice
      the national average.
      But to most Native Americans living amid the impoverishment of reservation
      life, statistics don't mean much. They don't offer any answers.
      And these numbers, according to more than one tribal member, aren't
      completely accurate.
      "Everybody acts like this doesn't happen," Joe said, "but there have been so
      many accidents that probably weren't really accidents."
      He explained that he believed it was highly likely that several car wrecks
      had actually been suicides.
      "When someone is under the influence of drugs and alcohol, that fear of death
      is gone," Joe said.
      Richard Milda, domestic violence and sexual assault prevention task force
      coordinator for the Santee Sioux Nation, said he attributes the high rate of
      suicides in young people to their lack of life skills.
      "We don't have the living tools: the life skills that contribute to
      spiritual, emotional and physical well-being," he said.
      Studies also show that areas with high rates of substance abuse incur more
      cases of deaths by violence and suicides.
      "Substance abuse is a major contributing factor to suicides," Milda stated.
      But that fact itself is a symptom of a different social issue.
      In a recent medical paper published by BMJ on the "Ecological Study of Social
      Fragmentation, Poverty and Suicide," studies revealed that suicide rates are
      more strongly associated with measures of social fragmentation than with
      "We've lost so much of our identity as a culture," said "Kim," another Santee
      tribal member who wished to remain anonymous.
      Kim said the youth are the ones suffering the most from the social
      fragmentation that is prevalent today among most Native American tribes.
      "At one time in our culture, everyone raised the children. It wasn't just a
      single mom, or a dad, but the whole tribe raised that child. There was always
      someone there," Joe said. "Now, people think if they feed their kids, then
      they're OK. But at one time, everybody fed that child with everything -- with
      love and affection and by talking to them. But somewhere down the road, we
      lost that."
      Joe added that he believed those same conditions exist in white culture, as
      well, though it is experienced differently because social and spiritual roots
      for most whites are more intact.
      "There is no spiritual base for our people anymore, but they are hungry for
      it; I see that," he said, adding that listening and talking to the youth is an
      important step in healing the problems that lead to suicidal urges.
      "We need to do things for the living," Joe said. "Now days, we've got drugs
      and alcohol, and they're prescribing all these other drugs to our kids. I
      don't think that's the answer."
      Kim added that spiritual practice was always the basis of traditional Native
      American culture.
      "(Spiritual practice) wasn't a religion. It was a way of life," Joe said,
      adding that today's youth are not learning the traditional Native ways or the
      Christian ways.
      Traditional ceremony and spiritual practice are measures Milda said the
      Santee community is trying to expand upon in an effort to mend the tribe's social
      "We're not always reactionary, though when (a suicide) happens, it always
      feels like we're reactionary," he said. He added that part of living is knowing
      how to handle depression, whether that's with the aid of prescribed
      medications, or by seeking help in other ways, such as talking to someone.
      "If we know how to grieve, we know how to live," Milda said.
      But the issues of secrecy and shame go hand in hand with suicide.
      "Many times when someone, especially a young person, is going through
      something bad, they can't deal with it, and they're ashamed to talk about it," Joe
      Studies conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
      showed that educational programs within reservation communities can encourage
      changes in behavior that may help reduce violence, substance abuse and
      domestic problems.
      Mentoring programs, parenting training, providing services for youth
      recreation, home visitations for high-risk young mothers, shelters for victims of
      domestic violence, campaigns to raise awareness about the adverse effects of
      alcohol and drug abuse are some of the programs that have been utilized in the
      past in various Indian Health Services areas.
      But to be successful, it was noted that the programs must be designed with
      the individual culture of each tribe taken into account.
      "We need more people to talk about these ways; have sweats, prayer and make
      our community a family again," Joe said, adding that he believed that was one
      of the best ways to help prevent suicides among young tribal members.
      "Life is a sacred gift," Milda said. "And when it doesn't feel that way,
      people need to get help."
      "We've got to get back to our old (spiritual) ways," Joe said. "So much has
      been lost and some of it we can never get back. But it's always important to
      keep trying," he said.
      "That's all we can do."

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