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Mitakupi Foundation Working With Others to Battle Youth Suicide on Pine Ridge

It was an exciting year for Jennifer Jessum and Simon Joseph, the creative minds behind the award-winning documentary film “Holy Man.” Their 2011 film, which told the story of incarcerated Lakota medicine man Douglas White, traveled the country for select screenings that even included August appearances at DocuWeeks in New York and Los Angeles. And a promising new venture was taking shape, one that took them back to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation.

It’s called the Mitakupi (“My People”) Foundation, and it’s dedicated to addressing the epidemic of youth suicide on Pine Ridge and throughout Indian country.

Jennifer Jessum is the founder of Flying Limbs Inc. Productions, and she served as director, producer, cinematographer and editor for “Holy Man.” She said she and Joseph were shocked at the frequent suicide attempts among Lakota youth during their 20 years of visits to Pine Ridge.

“It hit us hard, what the kids go through to survive,” she commented. “A few years ago, the tribal council office was getting calls daily, sometimes even on an hourly basis, about suicide attempts. Some of these kids were just 10, 11 or 12 years old, and sadly, many succeeded in taking their own lives.

“What really hit me was that no one in mainstream America would comprehend this, how these kids don’t have the hopes for the future that we take for granted,” she continued.

She and Joseph, who served as writer, producer and cinematographer on “Holy Man,” decided that they wanted to do something positive. Their inspiration, she said, came from their longtime relationship with Douglas White.

“Focusing on this generation of kids is something Douglas cared deeply about,” Jessum explained. “He always said it only takes one generation for change. So we wanted to create a foundation that would provide support wherever it was needed.”

The couple was aware that the foundation’s efforts might be perceived as arrogant if community members simply saw outsiders coming in to “fix” the situation. So they structured the Mitakupi Foundation to support community-based programs in need of funding.

“We look at great programs that exist now or that have existed and could come back if they had help,” Jessum said. “For example, Pine Ridge once had a Youth Opportunity program, and when it was operating, suicide rates were at an all-time low. We also look at specific gaps, such as the lack of a rec center on Pine Ridge. It’s a need that’s not being met.”

To that end, one of the Mitakupi Foundation’s goals is to raise funds that will resurrect the Youth Opportunity program, establishing youth centers in each reservation community. Jessum said they’re also seeking to fund the Hoye Wayelo (“I am sending a voice”) Summer Arts Programs, which will provide intensive hands-on training in multiple arts disciplines as well as opportunities to exhibit work both on and off the reservation.

“We’re working with Oglala Lakota College to implement the first summer arts intensives in 2013,” Jessum noted. “We’ll film the first one, as we’re hoping to turn this into a much larger program.”

Jessum and Joseph said they want to support and mentor young artists, to give them the tools they need and bring future possibilities to the table. These artists, then, will serve as mentor youth for their peers.

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One such artist is Tee Iron Cloud, a young singer and rapper who has recorded one of his songs and even filmed a music video with the help of the Mitakupi Foundation.

“We knew if we could help him get out there, he would inspire other kids,” Jessum said.

In addition to the Youth Opportunity program and Hoye Wayelo, the Mitakupi Foundation also plans to raise funds for Gray Grass Youth Programs, led by Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader Ricky Gray Grass. Gray Grass has established a variety of local youth sports programs, including the Thunder Lake Boxing Club, and he oversees the Annual 500-Mile Sacred Hoop Run.

Jessum and Joseph filmed this year’s run, incorporating approximately 15 to 20 interviews, and they plan to produce a short documentary film.

“We got some amazing footage,” Joseph reported. “We’re hoping to use the final film as an educational tool, to show how elders bring youth on a five-day run between sacred sites, mirroring the Lakota creation story in the Black Hills.”

“It’s so powerful,” Jessum added. “The leaders here have such great vision, such a strong connection with Lakota tradition. They seek to bring healing to places, and their own lives, through prayer — they show the young people how they can turn to their own traditions when things get difficult.”

According to Jessum, families save all year to participate in the run.

“One guy hawked his chainsaw for gas money,” she said. “It’s that important. We want to provide funding so the families don’t have to struggle quite so hard, and so more kids can participate. It’s a transformational experience, one that demonstrates how tradition can be a healing tool.”

And for Jessum and Joseph, therein lies the key to the Mitakupi Foundation’s approach. The foundation is not dedicated to saving or rescuing the Lakota people. It’s dedicated to undoing injustice and supporting a culture in its regrowth.

“We want to bring awareness to the horrors experienced by first peoples on this continent, to share what their children are enduring,” Jessum said. “Media coverage of reservation life is overwhelmingly negative, and mainstream America doesn’t understand that alcoholism, poverty, teen pregnancy and depression are the products of colonization, not the Lakota culture. You can’t deny the poverty and social ills, but they’re not inherently Lakota.

“There is incredible beauty and wisdom within the culture, and there are so many people in Indian country who are doing such good work,” she continued. “The Mitakupi Foundation isn’t about us, it’s about them.”

As the year wound down, Jessum and Joseph were hard at work editing and producing the Annual 500-Mile Sacred Hoop Run film, which they plan to send to film festivals and use on the Mitakupi Foundation website at They’ll continue to raise funds to support the foundation’s signature programs, and they’ll help spread the word about other important programs in Indian country.

“The foundation will be a place for the public to learn what’s going on nationwide,” Jessum said. “We hope to get people together so they feel more supported and more powerful. Again, this isn’t about repair. It’s about restoration.”