Teen suicide has been a major topic of concern for many reservations, but in Rapid City, South Dakota, an exhibition of photographs, taken by elementary and middle school students on the Pine Ridge Reservation, expresses hope rather than despair.
The photos are displayed amidst a rush of images falling from a center peak. The smaller photos are surrounded by larger images of an elder, smiling faces of family and friends, silly antics, dogs, and even a pair of red shoes. These are the things the children from Pine Ridge have chosen to show hope.
In the fall of 2011, two members of the American Advertising Federation (AAF) in Rapid City were considering what to choose for their annual public service announcement. “We usually support the causes of a nonprofit organization,” Karissa Eifert, communications and event director of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, said.
The group opted to work with students of Oglala Lakota College’s Introduction to Business class in Pine Ridge.
“We asked the OLC students what was important to them, and within 20 minutes, they settled on suicide. Other ideas included language or cultural preservation and elder care, but everyone knew someone who had committed suicide, and some had even attempted suicide themselves,” Eifert said.
The project involved students, fourth through eighth grades, in three schools including the Loneman School in Pine Ridge, the Crazy Horse School in Wanblee, and Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge.
The OLC students decided to give cameras to children younger than the usual victims of suicide, which Eifert said were teens and young adults. It was thought that by giving the cameras to pre-teens they might be able to change the tides from hopelessness to hope.
“We handed out 200 cameras and the only stipulation was that they take pictures of what hope means to them—family, friends, pets; what makes you happy? We got back 2,000 images,” Eifert said.
On Pine Ridge in 2009, President Theresa Two Bulls, Lakota, declared the reservation to be in a Suicide State of Emergency. Danielle Griffith, 24, Lakota, an OLC sophomore majoring in business, recalled, “I had a couple of friends who committed suicide.”
Griffith, who named her daughter after a suicide victim, believes that the project will help the children who participated. “I think the pictures, the kids having cameras, gave them hope. It showed them that people cared and it gave them a way to express themselves,” she said.
Many who attended the opening of the exhibit, which was held on Friday, December 14, had been unaware of the high rates of suicide on the reservation. One of them was Pepper Massey, executive director of the Rapid City Arts Council. Massey found the exhibit inspiring and empowering. “There are so many dogs and smiling faces. Everyone can find something they connect with in these pictures. This is a real powerful statement.”
As part of the promotion of the event, two graffiti artists were engaged to paint a mural in Rapid City’s Art Alley. Artist Derek Smith, 24, Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation, reported that at age 11, he apprenticed with a street artist named Habit, and graffiti has been his passion ever since.
“I had my own experience with suicide and I found my inspiration in graffiti. It’s how I express myself; I can find positivity in art. When I was in turmoil, I wish there had been a project like this that shined a positive light in my life,” he said.
Smith joined Tyler Read, 35, in Rapid City, to complete the mural. “The exhibits are relatable for a diverse community. Art should be enjoyed by everyone,” Read said.
Jason Alley, member of AAF and owner of Message, a local Rapid City advertising agency, said his personal goal had been to mentor OLC students. According to Alley, not many professionals go to the reservation to mentor, and the students do not have many opportunities for field training.
The last hour of the evening was devoted to a program that brought home the impact of suicide. The event was held in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and Gerald Yellow Hawk, Lakota, who led the evening with a traditional prayer, said, “When young lives are lost, it breaks a heart.”
Kathy Griffith, Danielle’s Lakota mother, said, “Any bit of hope you can get or give will help.”
Those involved with the project hope the exhibit will bring attention to the severe problem and additional funding for the reservation’s suicide prevention resources, including the Sweet Grass Project and a 24-hour suicide hotline. The Lakota Voice Project can be seen at the Dahl Arts Center, 713 7th Avenue, Rapid City, South Dakota through December 31.