On S.D. Indian reservation, young take their own lives

Since December, nine people between 12 and 24 have taken their own lives. Many more have tried, but failed.

There are only six mental health counselors on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, which is the size of Rhode Island and Delaware.

“It is devastating,” Oglala Sioux tribe president, John Yellow Bird Steele, tells the New York Times. “I don’t know if they were cyberbullied, or if they had living conditions they didn’t want to put up with, or they were sexually abused. Were they hungry? I don’t know.”

Now comes the hard part for journalists — deciding whether to tell people what’s happening.

Mr. Steele, who said many Native Americans traditionally believe in a “suicide spirit” similar to Slender Man, said that young people had been sharing disturbing videos on Facebook that encourage suicide. One video, he said, gave instructions on tying a hangman’s noose. Another directed children to go to a specific place outside the village, saying there were ropes there. “Go use them,” the video instructed.

John Two Bulls, a pastor who works with youths on the reservation, said that two months ago, he was tipped off to a group suicide planned in a wooded area outside the town of Pine Ridge. Frantic, he drove to the spot.

“It was cold, it was dark, and there was a row of trees with ropes hanging off the branches,” he said. “I was thankful that we were able to get there without finding anybody hanging from those ropes.”

Some teenagers had already congregated there, he said, and he urged them to gather around. “I counseled them, prayed with them, talked with them,” he said. They told him that “they were tired of the lives they had at home, no food, with parents all intoxicated, and some were being abused, mentally or sexually.”

Mental health professionals said they suspected that in some cases, young people might have been influenced by previous suicides. Feeling neglected, they can be attracted to the public displays of mourning that follow a death; and once they hear about the method of suicide, they imitate it.

But it’s too easy to blame contagion for the suicides, some experts tell the Times. There’s an oppression that never seems to end, leading to a hopelessness.

When Mr. Janis, a longtime activist, talks about Santana’s death, he points to the “multigenerational trauma” inflicted on Native Americans by whites and the tensions that still exist between the groups. On an overnight trip to Rapid City over the New Year, a group of girls including Santana overheard a white woman call them “filthy Indians” as they passed through a hotel lobby, he said.

“My beautiful Lakota granddaughter,” he said. “She had to hear that. Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.”