A young Oglala Lakota student ponders what hope is during a Lakota Voice Project anti-suicide presentation on the Pine Ridge Reservation earlier this year. PHOTOS COURTESY/JASON ALLEY
Looking for hope
Lakota Voice Project continues campaign against suicide
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer
RAPID CITY — Where do you find hope in a place where people do such a great job of hiding it?
For Jason Alley and Karrissa Eifert of the Lakota Voice Project and a motivated Oglala Lakota College intro to business class, the answer was simple: Ask those who do not know how to hide it. So they asked the children.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation the Lakota Voice Project is taking a new and innovative approach in the battle against youth suicide. The concept is simple: take a few hundred cameras, give them to a bunch of Lakota children and ask them to capture what they think hope is. The results were nothing short of astonishing.
For some time now, suicide rates in Indian country have been exponentially higher than that of non-Native American communities. On Pine Ridge alone, the teenage suicide rate is 150 percent higher than the national average, with children as young as 6 years old reportedly having attempted to take their own lives. The seemingly never-ending epidemic of youth suicide on the reservation led then-tribal president Theresa Two Bulls in 2009 to declare a suicide state of emergency that is still in effect today.
The Lakota Voice Project is a partnership between the American Advertising Federation of the Black Hills and Oglala Lakota College that hopes to do its part in stopping the rash of suicides that has plagued the reservation for years. The two seemingly different organizations were brought together when AAF-Black Hills decided late last year to focus their annual public service campaign on the issue of suicide on the reservation.
Each year, AAF provides a public service campaign free of cost to a nonprofit organization that otherwise would be unable to do so on its own because of financial restraints. In the past, organizations had been selected through an application process. However, this year the organization wanted to go in a new direction and chose Oglala Lakota College, Eifert, who is a board member at AAF, told Native Sun News.
“We wanted to incorporate students from Oglala Lakota College into the project and utilize it as a mentorship opportunity, and one that could be used to help them gain real-world experience working on an advertising campaign,” she said. “We also wanted them to have control over what nonprofit or cause they would like to support.”
Eifert and Alley spent time in the fall of 2011 planning with OLC administrators, who directed them to meet with the college’s spring semester introduction to business class. Alley, who is also owner of the Rapid City-based advertising company Message, explained to NSN that when he first started meeting with the class at OLC, “There were a number of different ideas that came up. However, the discussion kept on coming back to suicide.”
Eifert, who was also at that first meeting with the class, added, “Within a 20-minute brainstorming session on our first day with the class, the students unanimously decided that the issue that most concerned them was suicide among the youth of the reservation.”
With only one semester to work with, the pair — in an attempt to maximize their time and contribution to the class — traveled to Kyle from Rapid City every Monday this past spring semester to attend the class.
From that point forward, the movement that is the Lakota Voice Project began forming working relationships with local schools and tribal organizations that included Loneman, Crazy Horse and Red Cloud schools, the Be Excited About Reading (B.E.A.R.) Program, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s own anti-suicide program, Sweetgrass Project.
The strategy being employed by Lakota Voice is two-fold. First, give kids a camera, ask them to think about hope and define it for themselves, take pictures of what they think that hope is, and then — most importantly — share their pictures with the world. The second part of the plan is to take the message that these youth have captured in their photos and share it with the Lakota people using a traditional marketing campaign, social media and through a website that will display the images they capture.
The latter part of the plan will in theory give a voice to the youth of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Lakota Voice hopes that in doing so Lakota youth will have an alternative and a reason to not commit suicide.
Eifert explained, “The goal of the campaign is to remind everyone of the hope and beauty that surrounds each and every one of us every day, and that suicide is not the Lakota way.”
The high rate of youth suicide is not the only factor that contributes to the feeling of hopelessness that pervades the reservation. A number of other factors including deaths due to motor vehicle accidents, violent crime and poverty that all occur at a higher-than-average rate than most other parts of the country help drive the feeling of despair that at times seems to be the predominant feeling for many on Pine Ridge.
The Lakota Voice Project sees what they are doing as a way of empowering Lakota youth.
Although this approach to curbing the number of suicides on the reservation may seem on the surface to be completely new, there are similarities between the legacy of oral traditions on the Northern Plains and what the project is trying to do.
“There are definitly some connections between traditional Lakota storytelling and what we are doing at the Lakota Voice Project,” Alley noted.
On its website, Lakota Voice seems to promote the value of Lakota oral traditions, despite the fact that these traditions are fighting for survival in a world where the overwhelming power of modernity is ever present.
This passage from Lakota Voice’s website highlights this modern-day struggle: “Lakota culture was built on stories. It’s the one thing that’s always united us. The problem is, in all this hardship, a lot of us have stopped telling our story. Maybe we’ve forgotten how. Maybe we don’t think it matters anymore. Maybe we don’t even think anyone’s listening. But one thing we know: We can’t survive without our stories. They connect us and give us strength. They heal us, and that is something we all need. Each of us has a voice and it’s time we spoke up.”
The youth who have participated in the program are not only speaking up, but they are being seen and heard by huge segments of both the Native and non-Native communities due to the launch of the Lakota Voice Project’s advertisement campaign on Oct. 8.
The campaign is multifaceted and includes radio and television spots as well as the eventual use of billboards along reservation highways, according to Alley. The ads include a hotline for those who may be considering taking their own lives to call as well as a message of hope conveyed through both images and spoken word.
According to Alley, the Lakota Voice Project has plans to grow and the youth and adult team is working toward being able to display its work in South Dakota’s state Capitol as well as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
For more information on the Lakota Voice Project, visit www.facebook.com/LakotaVoiceProject.
“The students are really to thank for their vision and passion to give back to the community they call home,” said Eifert. “This experience and project has been simply amazing, and I feel very blessed to have had a part in it.”
(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at firstname.lastname@example.org)