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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Racism At Core Of Native Teen Suicides In Pine Ridge

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.

Only now the “Indian Problem” is employed to blame Natives for the poverty, substance abuse and unemployment that’s all too common throughout Indian Country. “They bring it on themselves,” too many strangers tell me when they learn where I live and work.

But there is a conveniently ignored connection—a direct one, I would argue—between the hopelessness felt by some young people here and their experiences off (and the impositions made by outsiders onto) the reservation. These experiences are what make these suicides bigger than Pine Ridge.

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