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'Rez disease' is deadly among Seminole youth

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/state/sfl-flseminole0928xsbsep28, 0,3834820.story Rez disease of alcohol, drugs is deadly among Seminole youth
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 30, 2008
      http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/state/sfl-flseminole0928xsbsep28,
      0,3834820.story

      'Rez disease' of alcohol, drugs is deadly among Seminole youth
      Alcohol-involved crashes, drug overdoses, suicide claim alarming number of
      young Seminoles

      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
      headquarters.

      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
      added.

      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
      Okeechobee.

      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
      failure.

      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
      statistics.

      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
      County.

      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
      internal affairs.

      "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.

      Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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