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Richard Stone, left, and Tyler Owens stand near a tree where an American Indian girl and her father both committed suicide in Sacaton, Ariz., in this Feb. 12 photo. (Washington Post photo)

Childhoods lost American Indians struggle with youth suicides

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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

SACATON, Ariz. — The tamarisk tree down the dirt road from Tyler Owens’ house is the one where the teenage girl who lived across the road hanged herself. Don’t climb it, don’t touch it, admonished Owens’ grandmother when Tyler, now 18, was younger. There are other taboo markers around the Gila River Indian reservation — eight young people committed suicide here over the course of a single year.

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“We’re not really open to conversation about suicide,” Owens said. “It’s kind of like a private matter, a sensitive topic. If a suicide happens, you’re there for the family. Then after that, it’s kind of just, like, left alone.”

But the silence that has shrouded suicide in Indian country is being pierced by growing alarm at the sheer number of young American Indians taking their own lives — more than three times the national average, and up to 10 times on some reservations.

A toxic collection of pathologies — poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug addiction — has seeped into the lives of young people among the nation’s 566 tribes. Reversing their crushing hopelessness, Indian experts say, is one of the biggest challenges for these communities.

“The circumstances are absolutely dire for Indian children,” said Theresa Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington state and a member of the Indian Law and Order Commission.

Pouley fluently recites statistics in a weary refrain: “One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average. Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have a 2.3 percent higher rate of exposure to trauma. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.”

In one of the broadest studies of its kind, the Justice Department recently created a national task force to examine the violence and its impact on American Indian and Alaska Native children, part of an effort to reduce the number of American Indian youth in the criminal justice system. The level of suicide has startled some task force officials.

At the first hearing of the Justice Department task force, in Bismarck, N.D., in December, Sarah Kastelic, deputy director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, used a phrase that comes up repeatedly in deliberations among experts: “historical trauma.”

There is an image that Byron Dorgan, co-chairman of the task force and a former senator from North Dakota, can’t get out of his head.

On the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota years ago, a 14-year-old girl named Avis Little Wind hanged herself after lying in bed in a fetal position for 90 days.

Her death followed the suicides of her father and sister.

“She lay in bed for all that time, and nobody, not even her school, missed her,” said Dorgan, a Democrat who chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Eventually she got out of bed and killed herself. Avis Little Wind died of suicide because mental-health treatment wasn’t available on that reservation.”

Indian youth suicide cannot be looked at in a historical vacuum, Dorgan said.

The agony on reservations is directly tied to a “trail of broken promises to American Indians,” he said, noting treaties dating back to the 19th century that guaranteed but largely didn’t deliver health care, education and housing.

When he retired after 30 years in Congress, Dorgan founded the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute to focus on problems facing young Indians, especially the high suicide rates.

“The children bear the brunt of the misery,” Dorgan said. “But there is no sense of urgency by our country to do anything about it.”

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