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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

There is a new mini-documentary film, Executive-produced by Sonny Skyhawk,  Sicangu Lakota, and directed by Noel Bass titled, “The Bears of Pine Ridge” that explores the distressing statistics of Native youth suicide plaguing the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The film highlights the efforts of the highly respected Oglala Lakota community leader “Tiny” DeCory, who oversees her Native youth performance group known as “The Bear Program.”

The program employs the use of life-size mascot bears and other animals that dance and perform comedy sketches for the benefit of Native youth, to empower them and bring joy to their lives of struggle.

Bass said that as a student growing up he also struggled with depression. In school, Bass learned of the high suicide rates that plagued Pine Ridge and wanted to help in any way he could. He started by volunteering in the community and worked for years to gain an understanding that affected the Oglala Lakota community.

In correspondence to Indian Country Today via email, Bass describes how he first learned about the difficulties Pine Ridge faced.

“I learned about the Native American struggles with depression and suicide when I became interested in psychology. I was shocked to learn about the situation in Pine Ridge, which had declared the State of Emergency in 2009, and the state of poverty they were living in. It was all news to me, being from the west coast. I felt cheated as an American that there was not widespread national knowledge about the issue,” Bass explained.

The Bears on Pine Ridge trailer

After spending time at Pine Ridge in 2011, Bass traveled back in 2012. Bass revealed how he was eventually united with DeCory, the woman featured in his film.

“I met Eileen Janis with the Sweetgrass Project, the tribe’s suicide prevention organization,” Bass said. “Eileen was obviously very knowledgeable about the issue, but also knowledgeable about the reasons why the youth were suffering. Eileen is very connected to Lakota spirituality and educated about the historical traumas that have hurt her people. A lot of her historical knowledge comes passed down verbally from generations of Lakota. It truly is incredible how much she knows about her culture, her lineage, and the events that shape the modern Native struggles. That same day she suggested I meet Tiny DeCory.”

Eileen Janis and Yvonne “Tiny” Decory (right), Suicide Prevention for the Oglala Sioux Tribe

DeCory, a former lead supervisor and outreach worker for the Sweetgrass Project, and the founder of the “Be Excited About Reading” (BEAR) program is also one of the only suicide prevention workers on Pine Ridge.

In the film, DeCory explains the difficulties youth face and the troubles community members and tribal authorities face such as the sheer miles they have to travel in order to facilitate intervention and the problems faced by youth that include extreme poverty and lack of resources and/or employment opportunities.

The film is Bass’ first film project. During the filming, Bass lived in his RV, parked in the backyards of supportive community members. He occasionally stayed at DeCory’s daughter’s home as a guest on the reservation. The project took several years to film.

“From 2012 to 2015, I made several more trips back to Pine Ridge. In 2014-2015, Pine Ridge was experiencing perhaps its worst period of suicide attempts, the highest in the nation. They declared the second state of emergency because of it. It was really disappointing to realize that this state of emergency wasn’t front-page news across the country. I felt like this should be in everyone’s hearts,” said Bass.

“The rest of the country was still unaware of the issue. It baffles me still today that we aren’t coming together as a nation to demand the federal government take action to make reparations or to put more resources into a long-term plan for reservations that are struggling. In 2015, I decided to devote my time to the project. I had already built a relationship with Tiny and Eileen and I knew that they held a huge amount of respect from the community.”

In the course of Bass’ film endeavors, he learned about The Bear Program, and ultimately became the title of the film.

Two BEAR Program mascots dancing for a packed gymnasium in Pine Ridge (The Bears on Pine Ridge)

“The Bear Program is Tiny’s pride and joy. She would always tell me with excitement, ‘You have to see my Bear kids! You’re going to be amazed!’ When I saw the Bears perform and witnessed the joy they brought to other kids, I knew this was the message we needed to share,” Bass said.

Bass learned that the effort was about much more than dancing characters. Though they are threadbare and held together with duct tape patches and more, the bears are about an unending love delivered to a community.

“The bears are a symbol of resiliency and hope, and persevering against insurmountable odds,” Bass said. “They are suicide-survivors who have collectively come together to help bring awareness. It’s a magical story. And that message is real in Pine Ridge.

“In all my years in Pine Ridge, that spirit of resiliency is a daily thing. The people in Pine Ridge talk about the youth every day. You hear discussions each day on their local radio station that talk about how the community can better itself. I noticed very early on that this was a community that is finding ways, all sorts of methods to keep strong and resilient. Building trust with the kids came naturally. I was around for years, so naturally, they got to know me. I’ve had really deep conversations with the youth, one on one because I’ve lived with depression, so I know how that feels. I think they sense in me that level of respect that I have for them. What many of these youth have been through, to then come out of it, wanting to bring hope to others, that’s just heroic. They really inspire me and my heart swells when I think of them. I was never as courageous as they are through my own depression.”

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Tyrell Pond, 15,  shows a tattered mascot costume used by The BEAR Program during public performances. (The Bears on Pine Ridge)

In Bass’s research in a few colleges, he discovered about 80 percent of the students had no idea about struggles in Pine Ridge. He said he hopes the film “will inspire youth to go out and learn more, to educate themselves about the effects of colonization to Indigenous people.”

“We've also gotten some really encouraging feedback from people who have experienced the loss of a loved one. They are connecting to the film and how it details the PTSD and guilt experienced from losing someone to suicide. They are connecting with Tyra and Eillen who lost someone they loved,” Bass said.

Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory leads a candlelight vigil after a youth suicide, for residents in Evergreen, Pine Ridge Reservation (The Bears on Pine Ridge)

The efforts to fight against suicide and raising awareness of Native youth’ struggles are not stopping with the film. Bass and SkyHawk are still working together along with others connected to the project.

“There are about seven of us really working together on the bigger picture. Our team recently connected with Terrance Lafromboise from the Blackfeet Suicide Prevention in Montana, Ann Douglas with All Nations Health Center in Missoula, and Rosie Ayers, the Project Tomorrow Montana Coordinator — to put together a panel with The Big Sky Festival in Montana. Tiny and Eileen joined the panel, which Big Sky will have posted on their YouTube channel very soon.”

SkyHawk said that as a Native man, “It's our responsibility as human beings to care and to find solutions for suicide amongst our children.” He was more than willing to assist Bass and ultimately executive produce the film.

“I learned about the project through a mutual friend. He introduced me to Noel, told me what he was doing, and his endeavors on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Noel knew about us through our activism surrounding Whiteclay and we knew some of the same people, Tiny DeCory for one. It was just a matter of time until I added my support,” said SkyHawk.

“I was always aware of the issue on the Pine Ridge Reservation in regards to suicide with young children so it was two of those things that were primary on my plate and that I knew I was going to be involved with sooner or later. I have been an actor for 40 years in Hollywood, using the platform to discuss our Native people's issues. And I was brought up by my mother and one of the last things that I remember vividly — because she knew I was in the acting business and a producer — she said, ‘No matter what you do or what you manage to do with your life, always remember to give back to your people.’”

Tyra Standing Bear, 17, visits the grave of her departed best friend. (The Bears on Pine Ridge)

“What a travesty it is for a young person to have to resort to suicide in order to want to put the pain away. Why would someone not care about this issue?” asks SkyHawk.

Bass said SkyHawk is “an absolute force. He has been at the center of this movement to connect others who are working on the issue, to create these discussions.”

Bass said that the youth who featured in the film are now young adults and are big supporters of the documentary, share his sentiments of “really hoping the film helps bring a wider awareness of the issue.”

“It's important to know that you're not alone and that the emotions and struggles you may experience from depression and PTSD are normal. And that you can reach out. People heal together.”

“The Bears of Pine Ridge” will soon be available online.

It will also play at upcoming festivals to include the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival from March 26 to April 6, the Pendance Film Festival from March 26 to 28 along with a panel of Indigenous suicide prevention panelists, the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival (AmDocs) in Palm Springs, which will be hosting a special drive-in screening event and the DC Independent Film Forum from March 30 to April 8.

Interested viewers can find updates on the film’s Facebook page here.

About Noel Bass

The Director for The Bears on Pine Ridge has maintained familial relationships with our subjects since 2012. As a nephew to the main subject of this documentary, and an uncle to the main youth in the film, Noel Bass (director) has been meticulous and thorough with documenting a truthful POV, concentrated on collaborating with the Lakota Tribal leaders throughout production, to ensure proper steps for such an intimate topic.

About Sonny SkyHawk

Executive Producer Sonny SkyHawk (Sicangu Lakota) has a 40-year career in Hollywood as an actor (a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences ) and activist for American Indigenous In Film and Television. Sonny has worked to try to bring awareness of the issues affecting the lives of Native people, fighting to bring equality for Native actors and filmmakers in Hollywood for decades. 

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