The people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are no strangers to hardship or to the risk of lives being cut short. But a string of seven suicides by adolescents in recent months has shaken this impoverished community and sent school and tribal leaders on an urgent mission to stop the deaths.
On Dec. 12, a 14-year-old boy hanged himself at his home on the reservation, a sprawling expanse of badlands on the South Dakota-Nebraska border. On Christmas Day, a 15-year-old girl was found dead, followed weeks later by a high school cheerleader. Two more young people took their lives in February and two more in March, along with several more attempts.
Students in the reservation’s high school and middle school grades have been posting Facebook messages wondering who might be next, with some even seeming to encourage new attempts by hanging nooses near homes. Worried parents recently met at a community hall to discuss what’s happening. And the U.S. Public Health Service has dispatched teams of mental health counselors to talk to students.
“The situation has turned into an epidemic,” said Thomas Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, whose 24-year-old niece was among two adults who also committed suicide this winter. “There are a lot of reasons behind it. The bullying at schools, the high unemployment rate.”
Somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000 members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe live on the reservation, which at over 2 million acres is among the nation’s largest. Famous as the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, in which the 7th Cavalry slaughtered about 300 tribe members in 1890, it includes the county with the highest poverty rate in the U.S., and some of the worst rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, violence and unemployment.
Suicide has been a persistent problem, a fact that is hardly surprising considering the grim prospects for a better life on the remote grasslands, said tribal officials. Most people live in clusters of mobile homes, some so dilapidated that the insulation is visible from outside. At night, trailers are surrounded by seven or eight rusting cars, not because someone is hosting a party, but because 20 or 25 people live inside.
Nearly 1,000 suicide attempts were recorded on the reservation between 2004 and 2013. Few weeks go by without a suicide, said Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, a suicide-prevention outreach worker at Pine Ridge.
But the deaths of the young people are especially shattering.
“Why so young?” she said. “Why do these kids think there is no hope? Well, look around,” said DeCory, who has worked on the reservation for almost 30 years.
“The economic structure here does not support the population. You have a gas station, a little boutique, a big grocery store, Taco John’s, Pizza Hut and Subway. You have people of all ages vying for those jobs.”
At the community meeting, many parents said the causes of the suicides included the decimation of their Oglala Lakota culture. The Sioux were forced onto the reservation in 1868. Tribal members for years were steered into boarding schools where only English was allowed. Religious ceremonies were discouraged.
“We need to do something. We need to take action” to build the children’s pride in their identity, said Sheila Slow Bear. The parents agreed to hold a ceremony to give interested students an Oglala Lakota name.
After the tribe appealed for help in February, volunteer federal mental health professionals began two-week rotations at the reservation to supplement the nine full-time counselors at the Indian Health Service hospital who were overwhelmed. They encourage students to come forward if a friend is considering suicide.
“They have to understand that they are not snitching on their friends,” said Angie Sam, the director of the tribe’s suicide-prevention initiative.