Tim Giago: The more things change the more they stay the same
The suicide rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 15 to 24 is three times the nation’s average, according to federal health officials.

An Associated Press story quotes “experts” that see “poverty, alcohol abuse and domestic violence as factors in the high suicide rate. But the article adds, rather lamely, “but the problem has not been studied extensively.” Has not been studied extensively? Why not?

Suicide among teenage Indian boys and girls has been three times the national average for many years. One reservation in the Southwest had eight teenage suicides in one year. Another Indian reservation on the Northern Plains had a near epidemic of teenage suicides just a few years ago.

One can look at all of the usual suspects such as “poverty, alcohol abuse and domestic violence” and study them to death, but these are only a small factor in the cause of suicide among young Indian men and women.

A recent action by a Senate committee to increase resources for suicide prevention on Indian reservations is an action that should have happened 20 years ago. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who authored the bill said, “What’s happening out there is devastating.”

The bill would “encourage the Indian Health Service to do more research on the problem.” Where in the hell has I.H.S. been lo’ these many years? This is not a new problem that suddenly popped up on their computers. This is a real human problem that has been ongoing and growing for more than 20 years.

Now here is where the bureaucrats really go into their special language only they can understand. The bill would “authorize grants for telemedicine that could help behavioral health specialists connect with troubled teens and it would increase the number of federal grants for American Indians to study psychology.” In plain English, what we are talking about here is a nebulous attempt to solve a current problem 20 years down the road. In the interim, how many more Indian teenagers will take their lives?

Sen. Dorgan then said that in an ideal world every reservation would have a mental-health professional, but Congress has so far been reluctant to provide a significant increase in funds for Indian health care.” Not only has Congress been reluctant to increase funds for Indian health, it has been arbitrarily decreasing them. Indian Health Service hospitals across America have been cutting back on health care nearly every budget year.

The saying, “don’t get sick after June” is well known to the Indian people of America. Since the annual health care budget runs from January to December, it is common knowledge among health care workers that their budgets hardly ever stretch past June. And so for the final six months of any budget year funding to the Indian hospitals is at best tenuous, but most often precarious.

Incidentally, Sen. Dorgan offered an amendment on the Senate floor to add $1 billion to Indian health care this June, but the Republican senate voted it down. I hope all of those sudden Indian Republicans are taking notes. And yet this same Senate can authorize nearly $1 billion per week for Iraq. Hardly seems fair.

The average life expectancy of a modern American Indian is nearly half that of a non-Indian. Infancy deaths are twice as high as for the rest of America’s population. Diabetes has turned into the major killer of American Indians. And heart disease is fast becoming one of the major threats to the life of the Indian people. 100 years ago neither of these killer diseases was prevalent amongst American Indians. In fact, they were practically unknown.

Federal health experts say that for every successful suicide amongst Indian teenagers there are 13 attempts. And I am sure that most Indian health officials truly appreciate any extra funds that can be added to the Indian Health Service, but like all problems, money alone will not solve them.

Tribal governments must get more involved with the welfare of their children. During every election on every reservation in America the candidates always bring up the children and the elderly. “The children are our greatest resource for the future,” they bellow, and “our elders are the fountain of our wisdom,” they muse and yet when they get elected to office these are the first of their people that they shove to the back of the budget.

It seems that so many tribal leaders are so busy trying to scrape together the money to build new casinos or expand their existing casinos that the bulk of their income is squandered on these projects and very little of it goes to education or health.

The more than 100 years of boarding schools that attempted to destroy the culture, traditions, economy, and spirituality of a people are just as much to blame for the condition of the Indian people today as slavery was to the Black people of America. The scars run deep and too often the modern Indian educators and health care givers totally overlook these more than 100 years of near destruction.

We are often much too prone to forget that history plays an important role in whom we are today. History ignored is history that will be repeated and if the manifestations of the mental anguish that causes so many of our Indian teenagers to commit suicide can be traced to the bleak history of their ancestors, it must become a part of the solution.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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