Of all the depressing statistics that one could report about Native Americans—the highest rate of poverty of any racial group, the highest rates of gang violence, sexual assault rates at 2.5 times the national average—perhaps none is as disturbing as this: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for males between the ages of ten and thirty-four. If you’re outraged that homicide is the leading cause of death for young African American men, imagine how hopeless things would be in your community if it were suicide.
Recently, the New York Times Magazine profiled some of the young people who are surrounded by this epidemic:
Jasilyn Charger was 19 when she learned her best friend had killed herself. Charger was Lakota Sioux, and she had left the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota for Portland, Ore., just a few months earlier. But in the summer of 2015, she flew home for her friend’s funeral. Then, two days later, while she was still in Eagle Butte—the largest town on the Cheyenne River Reservation with a population of 1,300—another friend killed herself . . .
In the weeks that followed, more teenagers on the reservation killed themselves with belts, knives and handfuls of Benadryl . . . Suicide is so common on the reservation that Lakota youth don’t bother to say “committed suicide” or “attempted suicide.” They just say “attempted” or “completed.” By the end of that summer, Jasilyn told me, 30 Cheyenne River kids attempted and eight completed.
But in the past year, some of these Native youth have found a source of hope. They formed something called the One Mind Youth Movement, which later became the International Indigenous Youth Council. At first, it was devoted to helping other young people in their communities, raising money for basketball tournaments and field trips to places off the reservation, trying to keep them off drugs and give them a safe place to stay. But then, as the Times chronicles, it turned “political.”
They started by going to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline and then last year joined the protest with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. “The youths came to believe that the Dakota pipeline was not only a threat to their drinking water but also a harbinger of the larger environmental crisis their generation was set to inherit.”
During the course of their time at the camp, the youth reported that they bonded with each other and that the elders in their tribes came to recognize how much they were helping the cause. “In a ceremony under the blazing sun, the council deputized the youths as akicita, a Lakota term that means something like “warriors for the people.”
In December, the Obama administration blocked the construction of the pipeline. One might think this would be cause for celebration among these youth. But there was a problem after the protest disbanded. As the Times reported:
Many of them had nowhere else to go. They had become dependent on the I.I.Y.C. for a support network and a place to live. Over their months spent in close quarters, the members of the youth council had bound themselves together not only as friends but as family. The stakes of dissolving the group had become obvious in a more immediate way, too: One of the youth runners had already attempted suicide and been rushed to the hospital in Bismarck.
The causes of suicide are complicated, but there is a level of hopelessness on reservations that is impossible to ignore. Giving young people a sense of purpose in life can certainly turn things around. Counselors may try to help young people find a talent or something that they are passionate about doing. Others may offer religious solace—and certainly some of what the I.I.Y.C. folks received from this experience was spiritual in nature.
But when the purpose young people find is a political one, it runs the risk of providing a kind of false or superficial or temporary hope. Whether we are talking about Native Youth or other young people, it is helpful to remember that politics is not everything. In our times, political causes come and go quickly. Elections don’t last forever (even if it seems as though they do). And once they are over, once a pipeline is approved or denied, once a protest is over, there are still the young people who are in need of purpose and guidance. Recognizing this might help stem the rising tide of suicides among Native American youths.