Charles Trimble: A Lakota memorial for victims of youth suicide

Charles Trimble. Photo by Native Sun News

A Lakota Memorial for Victims of Suicide
By Charles "Chuck" Trimble

Visited by millions each year, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute not only to those men and women who sacrificed their lives in that controversial war, but to all who served as well. Designed by Maya Lin, a college student of Chinese descent, the memorial is minimalist in design, very simple but powerful.

From the start it was severely criticized for not being appropriately heroic; instead it was abstract, even seen by some perhaps as “un-American.” Design committees, Congressional leaders and architects argued its merits and perceived flaws, finally approving it with certain concessions. Nevertheless, it is now one of the most visited attractions in Washington DC, despite its inauspicious beginning.

There is a deep solemnity to the place, and visitors are moved to reverence as if in a cathedral, and may even hear prayers and some soft singing. The most touching sight a visitor might experience is that of a graying battle-hardened veteran, perhaps disabled, in fatigues and boonie or beret, finding a comrade’s name and shedding tears as he moves a finger across the engraved letters.

Relatives of the honored dead sometimes leave a photo, a bouquet or wreath. Veterans have often left memorabilia, medals and campaign ribbons as if to say, “Here, you deserve this more than I do, thanks.”

But most of all there is healing, instant catharsis – almost palpable, you can almost feel it. Undoubtedly some of the visitors from back in the 1960s and 70s, may have cursed returning veterans and called them baby killers; but now when they see the Wall they must realize the pain they had caused brave men and women who fought bravely, lost brothers and buddies, and the parents of those brave warriors whose names are on the wall.

Throughout the Vietnam War, news came to us in numbers – body counts, and photos of body bags and flag draped coffins. Now to see the names, all 58,286 of them, is to realize the ultimate cost in lives of that war.

For the sake of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation – and elsewhere, to give us a full realization and the resolve to do something, perhaps some thought should be given to a memorial for the children – the young people who have died from self-inflicted wounds, a simple chord, or ingestion of drugs or other lethal products; young people of our tribe who could no longer endure trauma or whatever pain and suffering caused them to give up all hope, to feel that life is not worth mere existence.

It would be too painful, I am sure, for some parents to even allow their lost child to be listed. And it would be guilt-evoking to many to realize theirs and our own failure to meet the needs of that dead child. Perhaps that is what is needed – those young people had names; they are not just numbers in morbidity statistics.

Is anyone collecting those names? Is there any post-mortem analysis of what they suffered in common that would drive them to such terrible conclusion? Such analyses might offer some clues as to answers and actions to bring this awful trend to an end.

It is easy to write off the suicide phenomenon as an epidemic, as if it were an affliction from outside the community and tribe; or to write it off as intergenerational trauma or historic trauma. Although IGT and HT need to be considered, those haunting traumas also negate the need for self-analysis on a personal and community basis for it places the blame on outside people in the distant past.

A memorial need not be a granite structure with names engraved. It could be as simple as a display or slide presentation of smiling photographs of each of the “victims,” for that is what they are. They need not have died in vain.

Charles "Chuck" Trimble is a member of the Oglala Lakota Oyate, born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-1978. He can be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com or charlestrimble.com

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