Native Village 
Youth and Education News

December  2012

Suicide is epidemic for American Indian youth: What more can be done?
Condensed by Native Village

A youth-suicide epidemic is sweeping Indian country. Native American teens and young adults are killing themselves at more than triple the rate of other young Americans.

In pockets of the U.S, Native youth suicide rates are 9 - 19 times greater than other youth -- and rising. From Arizona to Alaska, tribes are declaring states of emergency and setting up crisis-intervention teams.

“It feels like wartime,” said Diane Garreau, a child-welfare official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. I’ll see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.”

The alarm is so great that the U.S. federal government gave Native tribes 10 of only 23 grants awarded last year to prevent youth suicides. Most are almost $500,000 per year for three years.

Former North Dakota senator, Byron Dorgan, chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for 18 years. Dorgan i
s founder of the Center for Native American Youth. CNAY promotes Indian child health and emphasizes suicide prevention.

Dorgan says the Indian Health Service, which serves the nation’s 566 tribes, is chronically underfunded.

"We need more mental-health services to save the lives of our youngest First Americans,” Dorgan said. “Tribes and nonprofits may get two- or three-year grants to address an issue that cannot possibly be resolved in that amount of time. We fund programs, then let them fall off a cliff.

"The perception may be that tribes have a lot of gaming funds, but that is simply not true for more than a few.”

Legacy of trauma

Suicide figures vary.  The most troubling numbers are in the Northern Plains, Alaska and parts of the Southwest.

The suicide risk factors for Native youth are well known and widely reported:
Many Native youth face extreme poverty, hunger, alcoholism, substance abuse and family violence.
Diabetes rates are sky high.
Untreated mental illnesses such as depression are common.
Bullying and peer pressure add more trauma during the vulnerable teen years.

 Unemployment tops 80% on some reservations. There are few jobs—even part-time or after-school ones.

Native youngsters are deeply affected by a community-wide grief that stems from losing their lands, languages, and more.
Up to 20% of adolescents thought daily about certain sorrows -- in some cases, even more often than adults.

Our kids hurt so much, they have to shut down the pain,” said Garreau, who is Lakota. “Many have decided they won’t live that long anyway, which in their minds excuses self-destructive behavior, like drinking—or suicide.”

In 2001, after a cluster of suicides, the White Mountain Apache Tribe (AZ) started a prevention program. It mandated the reporting of all suicides and attempts on their reservation. They learned that, from 2001 - 2006,  tribal youth youth ended their lives at 13 times the national rate.

The trauma behind the numbers is excruciating.

“When my son died by suicide at age 23, I didn’t even know how to think,” said Barbara Jean Franks, a Tlingit who was living in Juneau, Alaska, at the time. “I couldn’t imagine that hope existed.”

The tragedies ripple through entire communities. Reservations are essentially small towns where tribal members are often related, Garreau said. People are numbed, overwhelmed. Sometimes they’ll say, I just can’t go to another funeral.”

Alaska Native Suicide Rates
 Young Males: 9 times greater than all young U.S males
 Young Females: 19 times greater than all young U.S. females
(Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium)

Alex Crosby is a medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s injury-prevention center. Crosby's thinks suicide has become so common in some communities that it's almost an acceptable solution for difficult times. “If people run into trouble—relationship problems, legal problems—this compounds the underlying risk factors, and one of the options is suicide.

"Is it in our blood?"

“It crosses your mind,” said Jake Martus, Yupik/Eskimo/Athabaskan. Martus, 26, is a patient advocate for the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center. Suicide is so frequent among his people, he has to ask, “Is it in our blood?”

Martus’ father killed himself in jail after being arrested for drunk driving. Behind his dad’s alcoholism were overwhelming memories of sexual abuse by his village’s Catholic priest. Such stories echo throughout Indian country. Lawsuits against the Catholic Church detail overwhelming abuse at the notoriously violent boarding schools that Native children were forced to attend until the 1970s.

The lasting effect of the abuse, the land, and the culture is called historical trauma. Martus calls it genocide.
“They set us up to kill ourselves," he said. "The point of all the policies was ‘take them out.’”

Adolescents may not grasp that shooting or hanging themselves can have permanent results.

 “Youth who survived suicide attempts would tell us they just wanted a break from their problems, a little time off,” said social worker Patricia Serna, who helped create a tribal suicide-prevention program for a New Mexico tribe. She explains that in a Iteen's brain, the areas important to decision-making are not yet fully developed. Youth  might not foresee the consequences of their actions.

This is true for every teen -- not just Native.

Tradition as a life raft

Tradition is key, said Anderson Thomas, Ramah Navajo. On his reservation, it’s typically young men who are dying by suicide, not young women.

“I’d say more than 90 percent of girls here go through their traditional coming-of-age ceremony,” he said. But for males, traditional male activities like hunting have diminished, so the rituals related to it have dropped off as well.  But Navajo men and boys also need ceremonies, Thomas said.

“It was my tradition that brought me to safety,” Franks said who eventually got a degree and now works on behalf of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “Now, I can move forward. Instead of saying my son died by suicide, I can say he gave me 23 years of his life.”

According to Crosby, tradition is a
“protective factor” that counters risk factors—even deeply embedded ones. For indigenous people, tradition is distinctive and powerful. It incorporates family and clan, reverence for elders and a deeply-held spiritual life. These traditions and ties both encourage and give Native youth a strong sense of value

Continuity counts

“You could define many things—a school camping trip, a traditional dance group—as suicide prevention,” said Zuni Pueblo’s Superintendent of Schools Hayes Lewis. Lewis is co-creator of the Zuni Life Skills Development curriculum.

Zuni Life is among the first suicide-prevention programs designed for Native Americans. It was created after 13  youth living at Zuni committed suicide between 1980 -1987. The program teaches coping skills like stress management, as well as role-playing responses to suicide threats.

After Zuni adopted the curriculum in 1991, youth suicide stopped almost immediately, Fifteen years later, the school shelved the program, and suicides crept back. The shocked community asked Lewis to resume as superintendent and re-establish the curriculum. Over the past two years, he’s done just that, he said.

When the Zuni school system ended its program, the officials there didn’t realize
“how fragile the peace was.  Suicide prevention and intervention require constant vigilance,” Lewis testified to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2009.

Read State of Emergency for Native American Suicide
by Hans Steiner, Stanford; Kirti Saxena, U. of Texas;
Edwardo Duran, "Healing the Soul Wound"; Steve Trubow, Olympic Labs

Artwork: Leanin' Tree Christmas Card
Native Village Home Page

Native Village © Gina Boltz
To receive email notices of Native Village updates, please send your email address to:
To contact us, email


Thank you to ALL the wonderful individuals,  friends, organizations, groups, news services and websites who share or donate their research, work, time and talents to make Native Village possible
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment for non-profit research, archival, news, and educational purposes only.
NATIVE VILLAGE website was created for youth, educators, families, and friends who wish to celebrate the rich, diverse cultures of The Americas' First Peoples. We offer readers two monthly publications: NATIVE VILLAGE Youth and Education News and NATIVE VILLAGE Opportunities and Websites.  Each issue shares today's happenings in Indian country. NATIVE VILLAGE also houses website libraries and informational materials to enrich all lives on Turtle Island.
Unless otherwise noted, articles are written in full by the credited author at the credited source link. We are responsible for format changes and additional photos, art, and graphics which boost visual appeal and add dimension to the reading experience. Pictures and graphics not appearing with the original article are either credited on the page or by right-clicking the picture. Some may be free or by sources unknown.
Please contact us with any copyright corrections so we may properly credit the source.
 We are not responsible for changes to outside websites and weblinks. Please notify us if any problems arise.