Native Leaders Tell Senators How To Help Stop Youth Suicide

06/25/2015 07:45 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

Ten years ago, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota endured an unimaginable tragedy when one of its teens fatally shot his grandfather, his grandfather's girlfriend, seven people at a local school and himself. At the time, then-President George W. Bush promised tribe members that government resources would help the community recover.

That promise has not endured, Darrell Seki, chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Wednesday. Further, he said, the broken promise is harming tribal youth.

The Chippewa, like many Native American tribes, are plagued by complex social ails, including high youth suicide rates. The federal government has only provided short-term, temporary relief for reservation kids.

Seki on Wednesday asked senators to help find solutions to the dire suicide problem. He was joined by C.J. Clifford, tribal leader from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Teresa LaFramboise, a Stanford University professor; and Robert McSwain, acting director of the Indian Health Service. The key, said Seki, is long-term action.

Following the Red Lake School Shooting in 2005, the tribe received short-term federal grants. Seki said he learned two major lessons: "School counselors can make a huge difference, and programs like this only work if they are financially sustained over many years ... It is long, hard, slow work.”

The issue of Native American youth suicide is nothing new. But members of the Senate committee said they were dedicated to finding a sustainable solution.

“We will not turn away from this issue until it is resolved,” said committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

“We’ve got to find a solution, we've got to find best practices, and then we have to fund those best practices,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

McSwain spoke about some of the ways the Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has been helping Native communities deal with youth suicide, including deploying resources to the Pine Ridge reservation. In February, the president of the Ogala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota declared a state of emergency in response to the youth suicides, which have taken the lives of 14 reservation youths in the past year.

"As we move ahead, we need to do something more substantial," McSwain said. He noted the difficulty of recruiting and retaining health care providers in rural communities like Pine Ridge.

But Clifford said the problem was much larger than health care, although that is part of it. He said Congress could help with funding and housing to aid overcrowding.

In an area where the poverty rate is more than 50 percent and unemployment is above 70 percent, Clifford said that “children carry the outlook that things may not get better for them.”

Seki pointed out obstacles to solving his tribe's suicide crisis include a loss of tribal traditions in everyday life, a lack of after-school services and parental drug and alcohol abuse.

"Only sustained funding will help," Seki said.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) apologized to the tribal leaders for Congress' past inaction.

“I apologize on behalf –- well, I can only apologize for myself -– that we haven’t been doing enough for your kids and for you,” he said.

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