WASHINGTON – For years, tribal citizens have made impassioned pleas to federal lawmakers to help address the crisis of youth suicide among struggling Native American young people.
Like Coloradas Mangas, a teenager from the Mescalero Apache Reservation in Ruidoso, N.M., who testified before Congress last year about a time not so long ago when he tried to kill himself. “Things go wrong that they can’t change,” he said in response to a question about why Native kids were turning to suicide. “They don’t get shown the love they need. They say, ‘You don’t love me when I was here. Now you love me when I’m not here.’
“I come from a people whose pride runs deep, but I also understand that sometimes pride can keep us from asking for help.”
At the time, Mangas’ testimony struck a chord with the now-retired Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, the immediate past chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, who commended the high schooler for sharing his thoughts. Before exiting Congress at the beginning of this year, Dorgan went on to host a tribal roundtable discussion focusing on youth suicide, and he attempted to drum up support for legislation that would hopefully curb the epidemic. But those efforts did not signify the end of his commitment. Today, it’s stories like that of Mangas that have led the former congressman to begin a venture that will spotlight Native youth, while attempting to make up for all that missing attention.
On Feb. 28, Dorgan officially launched the Center for Native American Youth, a new policy program at the Aspen Institute think tank, with the aim of improving the overall health, safety and well-being of Native American youth, and in particular the prevention of youth suicide. “I am determined to try to make a difference in the lives of Indian children,” Dorgan said at a gathering of the National Congress of American Indians on that day, adding that he had used a leftover $1 million in campaign funds to get the effort off to a good start. He said he created the center because he believes the Unites States has a responsibility to keep the promises it has made to the first Americans. “And we must start with the young people, many of whom are struggling to find opportunities to improve their lives.”
The attention from Dorgan to Native youth is not new, but while he had successes getting legislation that impacts all of Indian country passed, measures specifically focused on Native youth sometimes stalled. “We’ve made progress on Indian legislation in recent years, and I am proud of those achievements. But much more needs to be done,” Dorgan said on the matter. Realizing there’s only so much Congress can (or is willing) to do, the former senator said he was determined to create an outside private group made up of leading policy officials to build awareness of Native teen suicide and ways to prevent it.
Native Americans already know all-too-well the desperate need in this area. According to government research, Indian youth suffer the highest rate of suicide of any population in the country with the average suicide rate for Native teens being 3.5 times the national average. In the past decade, suicide clusters have arisen in some regions, reaching epidemic levels of up to ten times the national average in some tribal communities. Randy Grinnell, deputy director of the Indian Health Service, testified before Congress last year that suicide is the second leading cause of death, only behind unintentional injuries, for Indian youth ages 15 – 24 residing in IHS service areas.
Tribes and tribal organizations have taken various routes to addressing the problem, including establishing wellness programs for Native youth, but an overall panacea has been hard to come by. Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, shared some of the challenges in an editorial published in newspapers of his region last year, noting that on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in his state, six children took their own lives in 2010 alone. One of them was 10 years old. “Leaders at Fork Peck are responding aggressively,” Tester wrote. “The tribal council declared a state of emergency in May, and counselors have been working hard to get the upper hand on this tragic situation.
“But in geographically isolated northeastern Montana–like in many areas of rural America–resources aren’t always readily available. Recruiting health professionals to serve frontier communities is challenging too. And in Indian country, these challenges are compounded by poverty, inadequate infrastructure and sadly, a sense of hopelessness that should never afflict a ten-year old child.”
Many see hope in the path Dorgan is forging because he has promised to hold regular youth summits and roundtables throughout Indian country that will bring together youth, tribal leaders, key partners, and experts to discuss the challenges these young people face and best practices on how to respond to those challenges. The resources of the Aspen Institute are also attractive, and should help keep the focus strong, advocates said. The center is also expected to assist tribes in identifying and applying for sources of funding; and it will monitor youth-related activities and suicide prevention efforts, especially in Indian country, to encourage replication of successful programs.
Already, some tribes are making a big commitment to Dorgan’s effort, with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama announcing a $20,000 donation to support the center. NCAI President Jefferson Keel has also pledged to serve on the center’s board of directors.