A panel of activists spoke about the alarmingly high rate of Native American youth suicide in a panel discussion at Jack Morton Auditorium Wednesday.
At the event, hosted by the Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights and the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, panelists discussed the role of the federal government especially the Centers for Disease Control in reducing youth suicide rates.
A 2015 report by the CDC found that Native Americans have a higher rate of suicide than any other ethnicity in the United States among youth aged 18 to 24.
Elizabeth Rule, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who studies violence against Native American women, said the relocation and oppression of Native Americans is an ongoing process. She likened people who asked why natives can’t “get over their inter-generational traumas” to victims of theft being told the perpetrators would apologize “if your feelings are hurt.”
Rule said the continued existence of Native American tribes relies on a strong youth population.
“If our youth go, our future goes. It’s all connected and we’re all related,” she said.
Victoria O’Keefe, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, shared her experiences working with Mathuram Santosham, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founder of the university’s Center for American Indian Health.
Santosham worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in eastern Arizona for several decades starting after a spike in suicides impacted the tribe in the 1980s. O’Keefe said the tribal council created a mandate in which all individuals on the reservation were required to report any suicide death, suicide attempt, suicide ideation, non-suicidal self-injury and instance of binge substance use.
“Culture and health encompass the same thing,” O’Keefe said. “All of those are related and shouldn’t be isolated into issues of environment not related to health.”
Ultimately, O’Keefe said that between 2007 to 2012, suicide rates among the White Mountain Apache Tribe decreased by as much as 38 percent compared to the period between 2001 and 2006.
Other speakers at the panel said creating youth programs to promote future success is another way to prevent youth sucides in Native communities.
Yvonne Decory, founder of the Be Excited About Reading program to motivate Native American youth to improve their reading skills, said she launched the organization on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to help the reservation’s young people who often graduate high school at a third or fourth grade reading level.
She said that lack of education is often linked to suicide since many younger Native Americans later struggle to find jobs and support their families. At the Pine Ridge reservation, Decory said, suicide was the number one cause of death.
“We look for signs of depression and flag families that have had suicide histories and keep a close eye on them,” she said of the program.
Decory also said government organizations like the CDC had come to the reservation to help, but their good intentions were backed up with little tangible aid. Often, she said, people who visited the reservation were not licensed in the state of the reservation, preventing them giving medical treatment.
“They did statistics,” she said. “The CDC did a PowerPoint, but that’s all they did.”
Decory said the best way students on campus can help these communities is to give aid and raise funding and awareness of the issue.
“Right now we can pray for us,” she said. “And even not involving Native Americans, you got people in this city who need to help.”