Taking preventive measures

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MARQUETTE, Mich. – Employees of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota learned ways to prevent suicide during training sessions, following the deaths of 27 teens and young adults and the attempted suicides of more than 400 tribal members over the past few years.

The Rosebud tribal council declared an emergency last spring, but the suicide rate among tribal members continues at an average of about one person per month on the reservation and in South Dakota cities.

Training was held at the end of October for the first of the tribe’s nearly 900 employees.

“We are still having tribal members that are committing suicide,” said Tillie Black Bear, executive director of the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society Inc. – the oldest shelter for women of color in the U.S.

“Right now, statistically on an international level, Rosebud is leading with those stats of suicides completed on the Rosebud – it [the statistics] goes by population,” Black Bear said.

In May 2007, the tribe appointed her the chairwoman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Suicide Prevention Task Force.

“In the last five years, we have experienced a lot of suicides. Last year, we had almost a suicide every month. This year, we have had some suicides, but a lot of suicides have been off reservations, like in Rapid City, and we bring them back to bury them.

“We have been able to set up training with the tribe (employees) and do a PowerPoint presentation,” she told the 2008 Uniting Neighbors in the Experience of Diversity conference at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

The WBCWS created 10 public service announcements for a local American Indian radio station and produced a 28-minute video titled “Suicide is Not a Video Game” that includes the parents of three Rosebud teenage suicide victims.

The video’s message to teens considering suicide is “you can’t press ‘play again,’” she said.

A WBCWS suicide prevention team goes into schools to work with middle and high school students, she said. “We did a curriculum with the video, and there are three school systems that invited the WBCWS team to make a presentation. When we went into the schools to do the video, we did a curriculum and we had about 1,200 booklets printed.”

The WBCWS suicide prevention projects include 30 signs posted across the sprawling reservation that were funded by a grant from American Indian Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills. To date, he is the only American Indian to win an Olympic gold medal, which he received for the 10,000-meter run in the 1964 Tokyo games. Mills was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The crisis is blamed on a wide range of social issues like extreme poverty, unemployment, depression, pressure from gangs, substance abuse and a general sense of hopelessness.

“The Rosebud is in Todd County, and Todd County is the second-poorest county in the nation according to the 2000 U.S. Census,” Black Bear said. “We have a high rate of poverty there. There is a lot of disparity between institutions and the services they provide there.”

Like the reasons for suicide, the victims’ demographics range widely.

“Some suicide victims were in high school, some in their early 20s,” Black Bear said. “There are more males that are completing suicide, but the national average is there are more females attempting suicide.”

Bringing the Lakota teen suicide to the attention of anybody who will listen has been a mission by Black Bear and others like the nonprofit Turtle Island Project in Munising. The organization arranged for her to bring the message to a Midwest audience at the three-day UNITED conference in late September with help from the NMU Center for Native American Studies.

The WBCWS hosted the two-day Wiconi Wakan “Sacredness of Life” Suicide Prevention Summit during July in Mission, S.D.

For more than a year, the American Indian media – including Indian Country Today – have been reporting about the Lakota teen suicide epidemic that has gone largely unnoticed by the white media with a few exceptions like KOTA-TV, South Dakota Public Broadcasting and the Lutheran Magazine.

However, during Black Bear’s visit to Michigan, the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., came out with a series of stories and videos by reporter Steve Young and photographer Lara Neel that documents the ongoing suicide problem on Rosebud. Black Bear passed out copies of the Argus Leader stories to several people attending the conference on the shores of Lake Superior.