Twenty years ago, I lived 28 miles from the largest Indian reservation in the country; that of the Navajos, which took up parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
Let me tell you, “the Rez,” as we called it, was one depressing place. Alcoholism, abandoned animals, Third World poverty and highways that were so dangerous with drunk drivers on certain nights of the week that you were taking your life in your hands to be on one. My car insurance rates in New Mexico were double what they were in Washington, DC.. And now I live in Alaska, with a 14 percent Native -- Eskimo and Indian -- population and a state with the country’s highest suicide rate per capita at 21.8 suicides per 100,000 people. Among Natives, it’s 35.1 percent.
So I was intrigued by this recent New York Times piece on the stunning rates of youthful suicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. For one thing, this was a case in which the journalists doing the story spotted the religion ghosts.
Since December, the Pine Ridge Reservation, a vast, windswept land of stunning grasslands and dusty plateaus, has been the scene of an unfolding crisis: Nine people between the ages of 12 and 24 have committed suicide here.
Two teenagers hanged themselves in December. In the next three months, seven more young people were found dead, including Alanie Martin, 14, who was known for her love of basketball, cheerleading and traditional Indian hand games. When Santana killed herself in February, she followed the recent suicide of a boy who attended her school, Wounded Knee, named for the 1890 massacre that occurred where the reservation stands today.
Many more youths on the reservation have tried, but failed, to kill themselves in the past several months: At least 103 attempts by people ages 12 to 24 occurred from December to March, according to the federal Indian Health Service. Grim-faced emergency medical workers on the reservation, which is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, say they have been called to the scenes of suicide attempts, sometimes several times a day.
The Times has written about this problem before; once in 2007 and again in 2012, the latter being more of a description of how desperate the lives are on a typical reservation.
But in this article, the members of the Times team did something different. They mentioned the religious groups that are trying to make a difference. Not only that, the reporter specified a demonic spirit that is/was harassing Indian youth.
“They call him the Tall Man spirit,” said Chris Carey, a minister who works with youths, some of them suicidal, on the reservation. “He’s appearing to these kids and telling them to kill themselves.”
Mr. Steele, who said many Native Americans traditionally believe in a “suicide spirit” similar to Slender Man, said young people had been sharing disturbing videos on Facebook that encourage suicide. One video, he said, gave instructions on tying a hangman’s noose. Another directed children to go to a specific place outside the village, saying there were ropes there. “Go use them,” the video instructed.
John Two Bulls, a pastor who works with youths on the reservation, said that two months ago, he was tipped off to a group suicide planned in a wooded area outside the town of Pine Ridge. Frantic, he drove to the spot…
Some teenagers had already congregated there, he said, and he urged them to gather around. “I counseled them, prayed with them, talked with them,” he said. They told him that “they were tired of the lives they had at home, no food, with parents all intoxicated, and some were being abused, mentally or sexually.”
You don’t see that kind of attention to faith details often in the mainstream media. And the article ends with people praying at a church service and thanking God for one week when there were no suicides.
This is part of the facts of the story. There’s more Christian activity than one might expect on reservations. Every summer in New Mexico, I’d see revival tents spring up at various isolated sites. When I visited the reservation near Gallup, the poverty was so bad, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had an outpost there. The squalor, the lack of electricity or plumbing (reservations are on federal land, so they get no municipal or state services); the primitive ways people had of heating their dwellings; it was worse than what I’d seen in India. The Times has written about this extensively.
People cannot comprehend the huge distances -- often over poor roads -- on a typical reservation. Because property ownership on a reservation is such that one cannot own the land beneath one’s dwelling or business, there is little private industry -- such as hotels or restaurants -- can do to create jobs there. Forbes.com explains it all here.
It’s really easy to miss Pine Ridge. Interstate 90 skirts it and visitors to the state see the nearby Badlands and Mt. Rushmore. Few roads go south of the Badlands to the reservation.
This was a trip worth making. Kudos to the Times professionals for making us take a look and letting the religious groups that do tough work there have a voice.
Photos by Shutterstock