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Teen suicide a fact of life on Native American reservations

Published time: April 09, 2010 22:59
Edited time: April 09, 2010 22:59

Pine Ridge is one of the poorest Indian reservations in the United States. An 80 percent unemployment rate and little hope for the future has translated into a growing number of teen suicides.

 On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, alcoholism, unemployment and inadequate housing only a few of the problems facing young people coming of age in the community. One of the results of the desperate situation is an increasing rate of teen suicide.

The suicides contribute to the impenetrable sadness that looms over the reservation. Depression is even discussed on the local radio station.

On the morning of December 3, Victor Kills Enemy woke up, walked over to his uncle’s trailer and found his 16-year-old brother Joshua hanging from the ceiling by a long-sleeved shirt.

“He was already gone,” said Victor. “He was gone. We couldn’t do nothing.”

This feeling of helplessness is compounded by questions about why a young man who did well in school and played on the basketball team would take his own life.

“We loved him and we know he loved us. There was no reason why to do it but de did what he did,” said Colette Two Bulls, Joshua and Victor’s mother.

On Pine Ridge, teens wear their pain not only on their faces, but also on their bodies – the marks from where they have tried and failed to kill themselves. Kelsey Richards says just about everyone she knows has thought about suicide at least once. Many of her friends have tried and some have succeeded.

“The first time I tried, I was 14. It was because I lost my first friend to suicide,” said Kelsey. “Just this past year, me and my sisters lost three people to suicide.”

Most teenagers on Pine Ridge have similar stories.

"Kids like are depressed about how they live and stuff," said Alliey Janis

"I think it is just because of the poverty. The sadness, despair hopelessness of the reservation,” added Samantha Janis

Nearly 80 percent of the people on the reservation are unemployed and most live in run-down trailers. Very few are able to look ahead to the future.

Eileen Janis helps run the Sweetgrass Program, a suicide prevention group that targets troubled teens. In 2008, seven young people between the ages of 15 and 24 succeeded in committing suicide, but there were 420 suicide attempts. Every day, more than one young person saw no reason to live.

“They committed suicide because they thought, this is my life, this is where I’m going to end up, that’s all we have,” said Janis. “A lot of the stories we hear from young people are so sad it breaks our hearts and we really try to give them hope." 

But hope is hard to come by. On Pine Ridge, suicide is the second leading cause of death – only drunk driving accidents kill more people.

Joshua’s family says he was drunk when he called his mother just hours before hanging himself, leaving a trail of tears and broken hearts.

“He should still be here with me, that’s all I think. He should still be here, but he’s not,” said Victor.

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