Dominique Alan Fenton: Racism at core of Native youth suicide

The victims of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee are loaded up on carts for burial. Photo from Wikpedia

Dominique Alan Fenton, a teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, discusses youth suicide:
At least 11 children between the ages of 12 and 17 have committed suicide in my county since December. The heartbreaking details vary from child to child, but their families and this community—in the newly renamed Oglala Lakota County—feel the voids left by their absences just as deeply each and every time.

Between December 1 and March 23, Pine Ridge Hospital treated 241 patients under 19 who actively planned, attempted or committed suicide. These numbers don’t account for unreported cases or for those who were treated in neighboring counties. At this rate, 37 young people in a county that only has 5,393 inhabitants under 18 will be gone by the end of 2015. Moreover, statistics from Pine Ridge Indian Health Services show teen suicide numbers have gradually increased over the last seven years. In the same four-month period last year, for example, there were no suicides in Pine Ridge. In 2012, only one.

If this were happening in any other county in America, politicians would be calling on their governor to intervene. But since Oglala Lakota County is part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, not many people outside this community seem to know or care about what’s happening here.

In Pine Ridge, site of the massacre at Wounded Knee, commonplace teen angst is exacerbated by extreme poverty, historical trauma and racial discrimination. As a high school English teacher and newcomer, I understood early on that kids here come to know mortality much sooner than most. At 26, I’ve only been to one funeral: for my great-grandmother, who passed away peacefully at 97. Ask my students and they’ll tell you that when it comes to funerals they’ve lost track.

When I ask non-Native South Dakotans to help me understand why suicide waves like these happen, their explanations too often invoke—either directly or through insinuations—the notion of the “Indian Problem,” a twisted, blatantly racist policy the U.S. government first used in the 1880s to dissolve reservations and force Native Americans to assimilate to white culture.

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Dominique Alan Fenton: Racism at Core of Native Teen Suicides in Pine Ridge (Colorlines 4/2)

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