by Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Condition.Discussion »
Last week’s announcement of the creation of a Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute breathed new life into finding solutions to one of the most serious problems in Indian Country: the disproportionate high levels of American Indian teen suicides.
American Indian youth commit suicide at a rate 3.5 times that of the national average. Periodically, American Indian youth suicides are clustered in time and place. When this occurs, the suicide rate soars to 10 times the national average.
Suicide Rate Soars
While the Center was established to improve the lives of American Indian youth, there will be a special emphasis placed on suicide prevention among American Indian youth. The creation of this is huge in that it will seek to find plausible solutions to curb this devastating reality in Indian Country. The Center will do so by going into Indian Country to hold summits and roundtables with tribal officials and others experts.
We know all youth, regardless of color of their skin, face difficult challenges as they mature in adulthood, such as peer pressure and even bullying. Beyond the normal growing pains, many American Indian youth live in third-world living conditions, which help to contribute to deep feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
This week I am in Arizona covering the Longest Walk 3 - Reversing Diabetes. Along the route I learned at one Arizona reservation, a nineteen-year old tribal member committed suicide this past weekend. By all reports I heard, she was a good student and did not use alcohol or drugs. Yet, something went drastically wrong and she died too young at her own hand. Now, a tribal community is hurting and mourning her loss.
Reluctant to Discuss
Along the route of the Longest Walk 3, I have spoken to several tribal behavioral health workers about the creation of the Center for Native American Youth and what it hopes to accomplish. They told me what I already knew: American Indians are reluctant to discuss the suicides.
The Center for Native American Youth is the brain-child of former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota. During the 110th and 111th Congresses, he served as chairman for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Senator Dorgan fought hard to reauthorize and modernize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, authored the Tribal Law and Order Act and reauthorized the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.
Much gratitude should be given to former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan making the Native American Youth Center possible. He gave seed money of one million dollars out of his campaign fund to begin the Center. Gratitude should be given because, though I do not know him, I realize there are other worthy causes he could have funded.
Senator Dorgan’s gesture made me think about a childhood hero of mine: Bobby Kennedy. Dorgan’s gesture is reminiscent of how Kennedy paid attention to Indians when no other politician would even think about visiting Indian Country. Kennedy took the Senate Special Sub-committee on Indian Education on tour of Indian Country. The nation was appalled at the horrific conditions Indians had to endure.
Bobby Kennedy was not your average politician; nor is Byron Dorgan.
Just as it was during the 1960s when Kennedy visited Indian Country, there is much work to be done. At least Senator Dorgan knows to walk the talk.
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