Vi Waln: Indian Country must look within to address youth suicide
I attended the Great Plains Region Suicide Prevention Listening Session last week in Rapid City, SD. There were leaders from several South Dakota tribes who spoke on behalf of the people. It was good to see federal agencies take an interest in what is happening amongst our young people. However, I believe the time has come for Indian Country to learn how to stop depending on the federal agencies for help.

Robert Cournoyer, who is President of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, stated we must look within for answers. I agree with him. When are we going to start solving our own problems?

There were no young people present at the listening session. And the only parents there were the ones who are employed by the tribal programs that attended. The letter sent to tribal leaders was dated November 12, 2010.

However, some tribal programs did not know about the meeting until December 1, 2010. Such short notice did not allow some programs to arrange for young people to attend. Still, it was pointed out to those who attended that we each could have brought a young relative with us.

It was also noted that this listening session could have been held on one of our reservations or during Lakota Nation Invitational in order for our young people to be given the chance to speak on their own behalf. Also, I thought there could have been twice the number of people in attendance then there actually was.

Some tribal leaders were traveling elsewhere on other business. This made me wonder what our tribal leaders have on their priority list. For me, the fact that our children are regularly killing themselves should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, whether we are elected leaders or not.

The federal government is never going to solve our problems. Our children are dying and we are the only ones who can do anything about it. It was stated several times at the listening session that suicide is everyone’s business. I agree with this statement because, again, we are the only ones who can solve our own problems. If you are one of the people who think that suicide is something that should not be talked about then you are in deep denial.

Our children are subject to many situations every day of their lives. Each weekday the majority of our children aged three to eighteen years old get on a bus and leave home and are out of sight for eight or more hours a day. The only way we will know what is happening in our child’s life during that part of the day is to be an involved parent. A parent who is involved in their child’s life is there for them, anytime of the day or night. A real parent is one who is not afraid to love their children or help them to discuss what happened at school, whether it is good or bad.

A real parent works very hard to keep their children in school. Education is perhaps the only ticket to a better life for those of us who choose to remain on the reservation. When our young people are allowed to drop out of school they only bring hardship upon themselves. Dropping out of school sets our young people up for a life of idleness, hopelessness and poverty which will eventually lead to despair.

It was also mentioned that our hospitals are receiving 400+ referrals a month to the mental health department. Now that might seem unbelievable but that is the reality our hospitals are dealing with now. I visited Rosebud’s emergency room one Sunday night last month when I became ill. The one doctor on duty was overwhelmed with patients, two of which were contemplating suicide. Later I learned this was a “normal” night for the emergency room.

Just hearing the word suicide invokes fear in many parents. Many of us say we do not know what to do to combat suicide ideations and attempts in our communities. One tribal leader at the listening session last week spoke of a 17 year old grandson who had stated to his brother that he was going to commit suicide. She shared the fear and helplessness she felt as she drove to the hospital not knowing what she would find when she got there. She found her grandson alive at the emergency room. He told her “I just wanted to get my mother’s attention.”

A counselor spoke of a young woman she worked with who was tired of her parents drinking alcohol and fighting. The counselor did everything she could for the young lady before she was released to go home. Not long after her release from the program the girl hung herself.

Parents admit they are afraid but it seems they are not afraid enough to stop their alcohol abuse or gambling long enough to ask their children and teenagers how they are doing. Questions could be simple. What did you do in school today? Is there anything you want to tell me?

Our Lakota children are the most valuable resource we have. I often wonder when everyone is going to understand how important our children really are to the future of our tribe. Without healthy, educated children we really do not have much of a future to look forward to. Our ancestors prayed for the seventh generation because they saw something coming. They had the foresight to see our children as the saviors of our very nation. Why can’t all modern day parents see what our ancestors saw?

The survival of the Lakota Oyate depends on all of us. Talk to your children and teenagers every day. Do not be afraid of them – they are YOUR children. Be there for them because that is all they really want from you. Your children need you to be their parents. Find the strength to help yourself and you will also help your children.

Vi Waln is Sicangu Lakota and an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her columns were awarded first place in the South Dakota Newspaper Association 2010 contest. She is Editor of the Lakota Country Times and can be reached through email at

Related Stories:
Vi Waln: Lakota people encounter threats to their water source (11/29)
Vi Waln: Lakota of South Dakota remain invisible in many ways (11/24)