Mary Pember: Comedian takes new approach to serious problem
"The fight against the high rates of suicide among Indian people has found a seemingly unlikely champion in Lakota comedian J.R. Redwater. JR performed recently at Cankdeska Cikana Community College on the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota as part of their suicide prevention program. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, JR’s take-no-prisoners approach to poking fun at reservation life has a poignant ring of first hand experience. Clearly, as my auntie would have said, “he’s been dragged across a few floors,” in his life.

Born and raised on the rez, he tells the audience, “Hey, I’ve been through it all. Drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse. I’ve been abandoned and physically abused.” The topics might seem too dark and inappropriate for tonight’s audience of youngsters and adults, but JR knows that these rez kids, like himself, have been through it all. His message is simple yet profound. The act of publicly telling his truth and laughing in its face sends the message that Indian people can be proud and successful no matter what has happened to them.

The Center for Disease Control reports that American Indians have the highest rate of suicide among any racial group in the U. S. Tribal and mainstream health experts describe the suicide rate among American Indians as a health emergency. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for Indians ages 10-34. (The leading cause of death is accidents).

In an interview with the Grand Folks Herald, Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, cited alcohol as the primary factor behind the suicide rate. In the same article, Eric Broderick of SAMHSA notes that most Indians who die by suicide have never received treatment from mental health care providers. High rates of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, low self esteem and poor parenting conspire to create despair: suicide may seem the only answer. Shame and fear keep many people from reaching out, especially to non-Indian organizations."

Get the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: Laughter and Suicide (Daily Yonder 8/19)

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