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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Suicide is having nothing to lose at Ft. Campbell and Standing Rock

Standing Rock Reservation

A few weeks ago, Ft. Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division was put on stand down, meaning that all activities were suspended, so that the post could address the epidemic suicide rate it has experienced. During this year, 14 suicides have been reported there. The commanding general exhorted the troops “Don’t take away your tomorrow."

During the same time period, the Standing Rock Reservation in South and North Dakota has experienced 16 suicides. There is no stand down at Standing Rock. The reservation is in a state of perpetual stand down.

Suicide is a continual problem at Standing Rock. In the past, it has received some open attention in the press. This latest epidemic has been suppressed. I am not supposed to say what I have been told because the authorities fear that an open discussion of the suicides will inspire copy cat incidents. However, as some church-related groups have made public pleas for prayers for the people of Standing Rock and have cited the 16 suicides as the reason, I do not think I am constrained by any confidentiality agreements.

Standing Rock has all the problems that are usually associated with poor inner city neighborhoods. A year ago, Standing Rock was one of the reservations to which the Bureau of Indian affairs sent a task force of police officers to augment the tribal and local police. The town of McLaughlin was besieged by gang and drug related crimes. The suicide epidemic is just one of the many problems that beset a demoralized people.

The suicide rate among Native Americans is double that of the general population. But among the native people, the Aberdeen area of the Indian Health Service, as shown in the accompanying chart, has the highest suicide rate in the lower 48 states. The rate is more than 19 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 people. Among the individual reservations, Standing Rock has the highest rate in the Aberdeen region. Most of the suicides are among teenagers.

Many groups and organizations are trying to work on the problems at Standing Rock. One group has established an entrepreneural center, Sitting Bull College has a number of programs that address the economic and social problems, and some church denominations have programs of varying extent and success. Tribal leaders and groups are also working to deal with the constant problems. The harsh fact is that despair has been a prominent feature of the reservation since its inception. When the Sioux bands were forced onto the reservation, under the leadership of Sitting Bull, they tried to adapt to an agricultural way of life. A series of dry years when crops failed emphasized the realization that the land in West River cannot sustain the white man's kind of agriculture. (The whites are coming to that realilzation now.) When Sitting Bull showed interest in the Ghost Dance religion of the 1890s, he was skeptical but saw that it gave his people a glimmer of hope. When the Indian agent and the Army felt that they might lose control of the people to this religious movement, they ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull, which ended in his murder. The reservation has lived under a regime of schemes that don't work and the subsequent hopelessness since that time. The white way is the way of hopelessness.

Whether on a military reservation or an Indian reservation, an epidemic of suicides is the issue of lives that have oppressive presents that bear no hope for the future. When the commander of Ft. Campbell warned his troops not to take away their tomorrows, he seemed to miss the point. People generally commit suicide when they choose not to put up with tomorrows that offer no hope. By giving up their tomorrows, there is nothing to lose and a chance that they can gain some relief from the hopeless present.

Suicide is hard for the survivors to endure. The suicides reject the world we create. And we wonder why. Rather than wonder, we should examine what suicide epidemics tell us. We won't like it, but we just might start to understand what is so terribly wrong.


Todd D. Epp said...

Good stuff Nuke. Thanks for making this tragedy known.

Todd Epp
Middle Border Sun

Anonymous said...

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thanks for this great link

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States