American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rates in the United States revealing a shocking 70 percent higher rate of suicide than in the general population. Native youth ages 15-24 have suicide rates more than three times higher than the national average. Across the Great Plains, this rate is even higher.
Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) told Native American Times, “We need to get to the root of the problem, which is poverty and a lack of hope and opportunity in too many Indian communities. As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I’m working hard to create jobs, and to improve education, health care and housing throughout Indian Country. This will restore hope and opportunity to Indian communities, and it will provide the tools these communities need to become self sufficient.”
Senator Tester has reason for concern when statistics reveal that Montana’s general population of 15-24 year olds have suicide rates that rank third highest in the country, behind Alaska and North Dakota. Addressing suicide is at the top of the list for many health organizations and Tribal representatives all across the Great Plains.
Robert Moore, elected Councilman of the Antelope Community, Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota spoke to the hearing participants as the representative for the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association. He reminded the participants of the obligations held in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that requires the U.S. Government to provide health care to the Tribes.
“Over the past several years in the Rosebud Sioux Tribe alone, we have witnessed dozens of suicides and hundreds of documented suicide attempts. The situation became so bad that in 2007 our Tribal President declared a State of Emergency in order to draw attention and resources to the problem,” explained Moore.
Senator Byron Dorgan stated that the lack of funding and ignoring treaty obligations was another part of the problem when addressing Native suicide rates at epidemic proportions.
“We need to go back and read the treaties that signed the federal government up for its obligations. Right now, health care rationing takes place on every Indian reservation in America. That is shameful,” Senator Dorgan reminded the hearing participants
“Forty percent of Indian health care needs go unmet,” stated Dorgan.
Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who lost his father to suicide, also attended the hearing. Reid explained from his personal experience that, ”It’s important to break the silence about suicide, too often a taboo subject, and to talk openly about it.”
Perhaps the most moving testimony at the hearing came from Dana Jetty, a 16-year-old high school student from Fort Totten, North Dakota. A member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, Dakota Nation, Jetty recounted the painful events surrounding her 14-year-old sister, Jami, who committed suicide in November.
Jetty told hearing members that her mother had been concerned about her sisters’ well-being, and “did everything right” by taking her sister to doctors and counselors. Following the evaluations, each professional had diagnosed Jami as a “typical teenager.” Then, in November, Jami took her own life.
Dealing with young people on Ihanktonwan Makoce, the Yankton Sioux Reservation is the daily responsibility for Oitancan Zephier, Athletic Director, Assistant Varsity Boys Basketball coach and Physical Education teacher for K-12 students at Marty Indian School in Marty, SD.
Zephier told Native American Times that funding addresses only part of the needs in Indian country as it applies to suicide rates among young people. “We do need more funding. However, we need more community involvement in the teaching of our children. The more involved our communities are in accepting and praising our youth for their accomplishments, the stronger they will be.”
“In the old days, we had buffalo hunts and battles to prove ourselves and earn recognition. These days we have basketball, football, and other avenues to do that. Yet, in my own community, the people, although they love basketball, don’t see the children as winners. Therefore, the children don’t see themselves as winners and don’t have a winning attitude. They don’t develop the self-confidence needed to compete and become strong individuals,” Zephier explained.
“Elders, parents, teachers, and leaders need to promote healthy lifestyles and extra curricular activities. The funding needs to include such things. The federal or state government will give us millions of dollars for a program targeting children with special needs. They won’t give money to prevent those children from becoming problems in society,” Zephier said.
Robert G. McSwain, Director, Indian Health Services, in written testimony provided for the suicide hearing explained that, “Traditional knowledge, along with the role of Elders and spiritual leaders, needs to be respected and validated for the important role they play in healing and wellness. Understanding and decreasing suicide in our communities will require the best holistically and culturally sensitive, collaborative efforts our communities and the agencies that serve them can bring together. We will strive to bridge concepts between American Indian and Alaska Native communities, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in order to effectively prevent suicide.”
Though many recommendations, successes and failures were discussed during the Senate Indian Affairs hearing on suicide, the clearest and most heart-felt plea for action came from Dana Jetty in testifying about her younger sister, Jami.
Jetty left the committee members with her own words to serve as guidance to the leadership by saying, “I ask that you support suicide prevention programs in our tribal communities and I ask that when you have your discussions on the issue of suicide, you remember my sister. She was 14-years-old. She was a beautiful, outgoing teenager with her whole life ahead of her. She was my sister and she is what suicide looks like in Indian Country.”
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