Life And Death On The Rez
- Feb. 9, 2007
Life And Death On The Rez
Social Breakdown Of Tribal Culture Revealed In Youth Suicides
By: 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
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
"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
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
"(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
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
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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