This week I received a call for assistance from Jan Paschal. A former U.S. Secretary of Education (New England Region), Ms. Paschal is also the founder and president of Every Child is Ours, a global education and human service organization dedicated to children of Pine Ridge in need access to education, books, clothing, food and the more importantly, the knowledge that they are not alone. The call was to request help on behalf of the children and families of Pine Ridge. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in Ogala Lakota County, South Dakota. A community entrenched in a historic and complex array of social and economic challenges. Tragically, recent events have sparked an ever-heightened sense of crisis and concern. As reported by Indian Country Today Media Network, the reservation has been shaken by a series of deaths by suicide of five youths between the ages of 12 and 15 years old, within the span of two months.
The history of the Oglala Lakota tribe is encompassed by a history that is a labyrinth of tragic events between the Sioux and the United States. Ultimately resulting in land exchanges, displacement, cooperation and breached trust (see National Geographic). Pine Ridge was established in 1889 in the Southwest corner of South Dakota. Pine Ridge occupies a significant part of our culture. It was the site of the tragic massacre of Wounded Knee, which led to the groundbreaking novel by Dee Brown in 1970.
One may recall the 1973 Oscar Awards and controversy stirred by Marlon Brando, winner of best actor, The Godfather, who in act of support of the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement designated surrogate Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to use the Academy platform to speak on behalf of the occupiers.
Turn the page to 2015, where the outcome of a tumultuous history has left these ancestors of The Oglala Lakota tribe, rich in tradition and spiritual strengths riddled by decades of isolation, extreme poverty, historic trauma, and despair. Depression and the threat of suicide is and has been a major public health crisis for this community. As stated by Yvonne "Tiny" DeCory, a training outreach coordinator for Sweetgrass Suicide Prevention Program, "We're working with families of those who completed suicide, or those who have attempted, or those who are exhibiting ideation. At this point, we're responding very aggressively." According to DeCory, "We've got to stop burying these kids."
According to the American Psychological Association, "Research on mental health (and health disparities) are limited by the small size of the population and heterogeneity. Nevertheless, existing research suggests a disproportionate burden of mental health problems and disorders." By all accounts, the failures to prioritize and adequately fund the Indian Health Service is also rooted in centuries of prejudice and stigma.
As outlined by Gundersen Lutheran Health System and Native American leaders in South Dakota the data speaks for itself:
• The life expectancy for men is just 48 years; for women it is 52 years.
• The diabetes rate is eight times greater than the national average.
• Indian Health Services (IHS) the sole healthcare provider on Pine Ridge, provides less than $2,900 annually in health care per Native American. Healthcare expenditures for the average American is more than $7,700 per year.
• 80 percent of the people live below Federal Poverty Guidelines.
As stated by Dr. Donald Warne, M.D., MPH, and Director of Master of Public Health Program, North Dakota State University "the amount of needless suffering and loss of life related to preventable and treatable illness makes IHS funding a matter of social justice and civil rights, and this issue needs to be a national priority for all public health advocates, not just American or Alaskan Indian populations."
Pine Ridge needs our help, support and advocacy -- because every child is ours. For more information on how you can help -- contact Wounded Knee Elementary School, Principal, Alice Phelps at Alicephelps09gmail.com or Gundersen Health System (800 362-9567.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.