Suicides at Standing Rock Reservation (Part Two)

This is second in a series of three columns about a recent series of suicides and suicide attempts among young people on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Five of the reservation’s young people took their own lives from December through January. The first part can be read here.

Any publicity about suicide can be risky because copycat incidents could result. Yet, as a mother of one victim says, it also is important to understand suicide so that other people can be helped. The Standing Rock community is working hard at finding solutions.

Today’s column focuses how the Lakota people, including tribal and health-care leaders and suicide-prevention officials, have rallied to address the problem.

The Feast of the Rocks restaurant in the Prairie Knights casino on the Standing Rock reservation, Fort Yates, N.D., is a little hazy with smoke and has a rustic, country atmosphere. The sound of chiming slot machines was background music for a meeting with three Lakota health-care providers, one of whom was John Eagle Shield, director of Community Health Programs. We finished breakfast and sipped big cups of hot coffee as we talked about the awful tragedy of suicide.

Many people believe that Native culture and understanding who they are is a strength and a force against problems such as suicide, alcohol and drug abuse. There is a commitment on the part of many Lakota people to provide stronger culture teaching. And while that is good, Eagle Shield said, there’s also a disconnect between spiritual leaders and young people. For example, when elders speak Lakota when teaching, some young people don’t understand, he told me.

Cultural abuse among Indian tribes and especially the Lakota people isn’t new, Eagle Shield noted. The defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the hands of the Lakota at the Little Big Horn River resulted in more restrictions for their reservation. Medicine man Sitting Bull was killed when soldiers made an effort to jail him. Many Lakota young people don’t remember these incidents, but elders of the tribe remember. The trauma of those years affects them today.

A woman whom I’ll call Jane, the mother of a suicide victim, may remember Lakota history. But she doesn’t attribute the death of her 18-year-old daughter to that history.

In an hourlong, heartfelt conversation, I heard a sad and devastating story from this strong Lakota mother who is reeling from the suicide of her daughter. Jane told me that without her faith in Jesus Christ and prayer, she wouldn’t have made it. “It’s the only way, and I can tell you it’s hard,” she said.

It took a while to stop calling her daughter from work, she told me with her soft, halting voice. Her daughter’s death left a big void: “There is an empty space there,” she said, “and I cry a lot.”

Were there signs that her daughter was considering suicide? She didn’t see them at the time, Jane said. But like other family members of suicide victims, she looks back now and sees that the signs were there.

Things changed for her daughter in the course of only a year and a half. Before that, the young woman had prayed, listened to Christian music and tried to stay away from kids who were in trouble.

But in the few months before her death, she had started using drugs, particularly methamphetamine. She craved it and it changed her life.

Then, things went from bad to catastrophically worse in the space of about 48 hours. First, a number of the young woman’s friends left the area. Then, two of her close relatives committed suicide.

And then, the young woman started both pushing friends and relatives away, while at the same time rekindling some old friendships. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, Jane now feels her daughter was making peace with those old friends in anticipation of her death.

It has been hard for the girl’s brother and sister, but they have a large family of relatives and friends who are helping and supporting them.

The tribal council has implemented several programs to help young people. They have a suicide prevention program, regional suicide services and the Community Health Program, among others. They are making an tremendous effort to turn the tide.

One project is the Youth Peer Mentoring Program, which calls for trained young people to help, counsel and listen to their peers. Fifteen-year-old Alayna Eagle Shield, John’s daughter, finds herself involved in this program that may become bigger than she expected. She wrote an essay this winter about peer mentoring, in which she said that young people her age are afraid and uncomfortable talking with adults. Eighty percent of teens who commit suicide give out signals, she learned in the training she received as a peer mentor.

Alayna says she wants to be there to listen to her young friends and relatives. “As a tribe – together – we are strong,” she said. She wants to share her traditional knowledge and culture with her peers. Alayna participates in the cultural ceremonies such as inipi (sweats) and Sundances.

While I was there, Alayna got a call from a high school student who said she was going to commit suicide. Alayna set out through slushy snow to intervene and to listen. She brought the young teen home with her and began the process of intervention.

Young people, Alayna said, need to know how important they are and that they are loved.

There have been no new suicide deaths in several weeks on the reservation, and the number of attempts is dwindling.

DORREEN YELLOW BIRD writes for the Grand Forks Herald and