'Rez disease' is deadly among Seminole youth
'Rez disease' of alcohol, drugs is deadly among Seminole youth
Alcohol-involved crashes, drug overdoses, suicide claim alarming number of
By Mike Clary and John Maines
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 28, 2008
For young members of the Seminole Tribe, this should be the best of times.
With annual revenues from casinos and other businesses that have topped
$1.4 billion, the tribe provides each of its 3,300 members with an income
of about $120,000 a year, a free education and a guaranteed job. And many
college-educated Seminoles are coming home to work in the tribe's Hollywood
Despite these positive developments, young Seminoles die at an alarming
rate from drug overdoses, alcohol-involved car crashes and suicide.
Of 17 Seminole deaths recorded so far in 2008, 11 or about 65 percent
have been linked to drug or alcohol abuse, according to figures obtained by
the Sun Sentinel.
"I call it the 'Rez disease,'" said former Florida Atlantic University
football star Jarrid Smith, 23. At least seven of his friends and former
classmates are dead, in jail or in rehabilitation facilities, Smith said.
"And I'm not sure the tribe is doing enough to address the problem," he
Most of those who have died this year never reached their 40th birthday.
Among the fatalities were the 27-year-old daughter of Tribal Councilman
David Cypress, killed in an April car crash, and James Girtman, 22, a
boyhood friend of Smith's, who died of a gunshot suicide in January in
Smith, the grandson of a former Seminole leader, was so shaken by Girtman's
death that he wrote a brief essay, published in the tribe's newspaper, The
Seminole Tribune,in which he said the deaths amounted to a community
Under the headline "Here Yesterday, Gone Today," Smith wrote, "We allow
them to destroy themselves."A review of records from the state's Bureau of
Vital Statistics shows it is unusual for a Seminole to survive into his 70s
or 80s. The average age of a Seminole at death has dropped from 59.7 in
1997 to 48.5 in 2007, an analysis of state records shows.
The average age at death for all Floridians is 73, according to state
Death at an early age, and alcohol and drug abuse, have long plagued Native
American communities. Last month the federal Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention reported that almost 12 percent of the deaths among American
Indians and Alaska Natives are alcohol-related, a rate more than three
times the percentage in the general population.
'You grow numb to it'
Some Seminoles say they grow up expecting loved ones will die too soon. At
24, Zena Simmons has lost a brother and an uncle to alcohol-involved
vehicle crashes, and at least two friends to suicide and drugs. "You grow
numb to it, so when someone dies you already accept it," said Simmons, who
is less than a year away from an FAU psychology degree.
A recent spike in accidental deaths among tribal members, along with a
troubling school dropout rate and an eroding work ethic, is linked to
growing prosperity, many Seminoles believe.
Simmons, who as a teenager went through years of drug use and rebellion,
said she sees a correlation between money and excess. So, too, does her
eldest sister, Thomasine Jumper.
"You use that money, so you don't have to work. Mainly, that's what I think
it is," said Jumper, 29, who admits to several years' worth of bad choices
in compiling a long criminal record.
Currently jailed for drug and traffic offenses in Collier County, Jumper
said she recently took a high school certification test and is determined
to change her life.
"Maybe the lifestyle on the rez is too easy," Jumper said. "I have not
taken advantage of the opportunities. But they are there."
The tribe sponsors programs designed to teach youngsters about the dangers
of alcohol and drugs, including a new one called SWAMP Students Without
Addictions Making Progress at the remote Brighton reservation in Glades
Compelled to speak out
The tribe also conducts an annual Wellness Conference at which strategies
to combat alcohol and drug use are aired.
But Smith said the tribe's response to an epidemic of young deaths has been
inadequate. "What is the plan?" he asked. "There is no plan."
Tribal health and social service directors were barred from discussing with
a reporter the death rate among young Seminoles.
"The Seminole tribe of Florida prefers not to play a part in this story
because of privacy concerns," spokesman Gary Bitner said.
But even among a tribe known to value privacy, alarm over the death rate
has spurred Smith and others to speak out.
Seminole Recreation Director Moses Jumper, a poet who often serves as
master of ceremonies at tribal events, said he recently has presided at an
unprecedented number of funerals for young people.
"I do eulogies all the time," he said. "More and more. Because I've known
them. It's tough."
In agreeing to speak about his concerns, Smith said he was aware that he
could draw fire from tribal members uncomfortable with public airing of
"By speaking, I am hoping for that shock reaction," said Smith, who last
month was named Outstanding Seminole Athlete of 2007 by the Seminole Sports
Hall of Fame. "These things have been going on for too long. Progress is
slow. I am afraid of losing more people."
Mike Clary can be reached at mwclary@... or at 305-810-5007.
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