Heartbreaking Tragedy on Indian Reservation. Few Notice.

Indian reservation tragedy
James Pendleton, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Red Shirt Table overlook, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Fliker.com. CC BY-ND 2.0

A double tragedy occurred in January on South Dakota’s iconic Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, two among many serial catastrophes fueled by the often harsh realities of life on the “rez.” At least one reservation resident fears that belief in an afterlife unduly influenced the result.

The genesis was the deaths of two Lakota Sioux siblings—a young man, 21, and his 16-year-old sister–within days of each other, reportedly by their own hands. I was told the girl was overwhelmed by grief over losing her brother; no report was available about what troubled the brother.

Obituaries were posted Jan. 22 and 23 on the Facebook page of Pine Ridge’s Sioux Funeral Home. Separate funeral services were held several days later.

Few beyond the reservation were even aware of these terribly sad events due to the remoteness and cultural separateness of Pine Ridge, and also due to the declining fortunes of community newspapers such as the area’s Rapid City Journal, and thus to the vanishing number of reporters available to bring such instructive stories to light. Indeed, I found zero media news reports about this recent tragedy.

I have not named the victims in this post because of respect for the particularly deep sensitivities surrounding this painful topic on reservations, and for survivors’ friends and families. Also, public information about what happened is incomplete.

Both of these vibrant young Native Americans who left the world far too soon were—I do not exaggerate—as transcendently beautiful as movie stars and, as their lingering social media posts still attest, full of boundless love for others.

The siblings’ posts reveal a shared mix of courage, generosity and kindness. In a Nov. 4 post last year, the girl wrote, “Smile through the pain,” followed by an upside-down smiley face imogi. On Oct. 7 she shared this quote: “I can give you the world If you’d let me.” On his social media page, the brother posted this a few days after Christmas last year, “You are the healing hands where it used to hurt. You’re my saving grace … my kind of church.”

But none of that apparently protected either sibling from the demons of despair that too often torment young people on the cusp of maturity in this beautiful but isolated and poverty-plundered reservation. Their legacy was involuntary as descendants of genocidal abuse of their own people during centuries of brutal colonial oppression in America. But that made it no less painful or unfair.

These sad, intimately intertwined recent deaths moved a Pine Ridge resident to write an emotional lament on social media (he asked not to be identified or linked to his posts). He said the incidents reminded him of how distressingly common such viral suicides are on the reservation and how they are often driven by a deep desire to reunite with a deceased but eternally beloved person in some supernatural paradise. The deceased sister’s obituary characterized her passing as taking a “journey to the Spirit World.”

Lakota spirituality tends often to be a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christian notions embedded by European missionaries long ago.

As a nonbeliever in invisible phantasms, the writer said he wishes that American society could “let go of the afterlife myth, and just accept that death is the end.” He wrote that even though the purported hereafter is a seminal idea of religion, “it seems like cold comfort a lot of the time,” offering but “false hope” to those who grieve a seemingly insufferable loss. He said local taboos about religious unbelief and suicide make it difficult to publicly and rationally discuss these tragedies and the supernatural mindsets that sometimes motivate them.

An added element of anguish for those contemplating suicide—“so many of them young,” he bemoaned—is a cultural idea among some tribal members at Pine Ridge that suicide condemns each victim “to roam the earth forever as a lost ghost, wandering forlornly for eternity.”

The devastations of history continue. Pine Ridge today endures one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, and this scourge of despair too commonly visits the young. The Atlantic magazine reported  about a “youth-suicide epidemic” on the reservation in 2014-2015, when in a few months nearly 200 local youths reportedly either killed or attempted to kill themselves—11 succeeded—Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele told the U.S. Senate Committee of Indian Affairs on June 24, 2015. While this heartbreaking modern symptom of age-old subjugation and persecution is Indian Country’s immediate and intractable problem, it’s everyone’s responsibility. The bell, indeed, tolls for us all.

Nearly two decades ago when I worked as a copy editor for a newspaper in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fewer than 85 miles from the reservation, my wife and I lived in a country home some 10 miles outside the city, nestled in a lovely wooded glen. Our two acres of land justly should still have been part of treaty-assured Indian Country in the Black Hills but wasn’t. In effect, it had been stolen and made available to us. Indeed, the soothing, idyllic view out or front window wasn’t really ours to own. But, still, there was the deed in our safe deposit box.

And the citizens of Pine Ridge, as the recent tragedies in that community attest, are still paying our mortgage, as it were, although we have long since sold the little piece of paradise to another non-Indian family.

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