June 30, 2005 -- Lush, green rolling hills stretch across the nearly 3 million acres of the Cheyenne River reservation in Eagle Butte, S.D. But the bucolic setting is contradicted by an alarming rate of suicides among young people that has American Indian leaders looking for answers.
The reservation suffered a staggering 17 youth suicides in 2002-03, with an average of five attempts per week. In this tight-knit community, everyone knows at least one of the teenagers who tried -- or succeeded -- in taking their own lives.
"Some of these suicides were young men who had made a suicide pact with one another. They drew numbers, and decided to hang themselves in that order. One by one their families found these boys, often hanging in their homes, as their number came up," said Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project.
Overall, teens here are five to seven times more likely to commit suicide, according to Garreau.
"It's something that people outside Native communities don't seem to know about," Garreau said. "One senator I spoke with about this a few years ago was astounded and asked, 'Why don't we know about this?' It's a hard question. I think there is this invisible wall around the reservations where non-Native people just don't go. I certainly know what is going on outside the reservation and in other communities. I don't know why people don't know what is going on in my community."
According to recent studies, American-Indian teens are more than twice as likely as other teens to kill themselves. Statistics show older Native teens and young adults, 15 to 24 years old, are three times as likely to kill themselves. A study published last year in Trends in Indian Health stated that suicide has become a community problem as "suicide clusters" occur.
At a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, Garreau tried to explain what leads to the three to seven suicide attempts her community sees every week.
"Daily life on the reservation can be hard on our youth," she told the committee. "We see it in families so ravaged by alcoholism that what money is available is 'drunk up' rather than spent on food.… We witness older youth taking over the parenting of their younger siblings. As you know, opportunities are often limited in rural communities, and no one feels it more than teenagers."
The geographic isolation and poverty on many reservations take a toll on the community, and teens see suicide as their only option, Garreau said.
A March shooting spree on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, where a 16-year-old student killed nine people, wounded several others and then killed himself, has shined a spotlight on the plight of American-Indian teens.
The shooter, Jeff Weise, had a troubled life. His father committed suicide years ago after a standoff with police. His mother later suffered brain damage in a car accident. Jeff had been living with his grandfather and his grandfather's companion, who were among his first victims.
What research is available on suicide in Native communities suggests younger and more impulsive suicide attempts than in other racial and ethnic groups.
Joseph B. Stone, a psychologist and descendant of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota and Lakota of South Dakota, said that one way to curb suicide in Native youth is to equip reservations with more mental health professionals. Stone's brother killed himself at 18.
"Native youth suicide issues are one of the most frequently voiced concerns when I am asked to consult with other community programs treating Native clients," he said.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., vice chairman of the Senate committee, said he was urged not to hold public hearings on this sensitive topic. But he said it was important to raise awareness about the extremely high rates of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native youth.
"This is a hearing that, in many ways, all of us wish we were not attending to discuss a subject that perhaps we wish that wouldn't have to discuss," he said in his opening statement.
Garreau said one particular suicide on Cheyenne River really struck her. The 17-year-old was one that she thought "was going to make it." He had been going to the youth center since he was 4 years old.
She said the children on Cheyenne River need a dynamic place that will lure them away from substance abuse and gang life, which she thinks are factors in the suicides. Her youth project, which began in 1988, operates a drop-in center that's open seven days a week and provides recreational activities like sports and arts and crafts. It also provides other support services like meals, books and even movies in a safe, alcohol-, drug- and tobacco-free environment.
"We don't have malls or movie theaters," she said. "Obviously, I would rather not have to go to the Senate to testify. But people don't know what is happening on the reservations and they need to know."
Garreau and others are asking for money to fund programs like the expanded teen center at Cheyenne River. The center would be a "home-like environment" that would encourage Native pride.
As Native-American languages become nearly extinct and many young Native-Americans don't have a sense of their own history, the poverty and substance abuse issues multiply, Garreau said.
"Suicide then becomes to these teens a viable way out, an option," she said.