Clara Caufield: Too many of our young people are dying too soon

Sunset on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, June 1973. Photo by Boyd Norton / Environmental Protection Agency / National Archives and Records Administration

Many Indians die too young
By Clara Caufield

This issue of Native Sun News will be printed on or near Memorial Day. That is a day of mixed emotion for many Native people. On one hand, we are proud to honor the Veterans who have sacrificed for country, Tribe and family. Across the land, tribal communities will hold celebrations in honor of our fallen warriors and those who succumbed to natural causes after valiant military service. On this occasion, it is good to once again acknowledge that Native Americans have the highest military enlistment rate of any ethic group in America.

This year, I was particularly touched to learn that the students from Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, Crow Reservation will decorate approximately 5,000 graves on and near the Crow Reservation, including non-Indians. That will be a great lesson for those students. As they place a flag on each military grave, I hope they stop to read the name and give a moment’s thanks for that veteran’s sacrifice and patriotism.

But, Memorial Day is also when we remember other loved ones who have “gone on to the next camp.” It is always hard to lose a beloved parent or elder, yet when they leave us, it is somehow in the natural order of things. Sadly, at Northern Cheyenne and on many of sister reservations, we also lose far too many young ones, in the flower of youth. That is more heart wrenching – parents are not supposed to bury their children.

Northern Cheyenne, for example is reeling from recent unexpected deaths: in just the past few months, a 20-year-old recently died due to a senseless stabbing; a 16-year-old basketball star was killed on graduation night in a car accident and many others have recently perished at extremely young ages, throwing parents and family into unimaginable grief, those shock waves affecting the entire community which is closely connected. Even 50 is considered “young” in America where life expectancy is increasing, 60 is now the new middle-age.

Every week, our small reservation community (approximately 4,500) experiences an average of three funerals per week, sometimes more. Unlike surrounding white communities, many of those who pass in Indian country are very young – too young, I believe. While we grieve when elders make that last journey, it is more difficult when our young ones leave us. That is not in the natural order.

Recently, the State of Montana acknowledged the disparity in mortality rates between the state’s Indian and non-Indian populations. According to statistics, Indians in the State of Montana have a life expectancy many years less (close to 20) than white Montanans. And I expect it is the same across other states in the Great Plains. I read the obituary section of Native Sun News and other area papers. Non-Indian obit sections, for the most part, primarily are filled with notices about the deaths of elderly people and I am amazed at how long many of them live. Native newspaper obits also include long-lived life stories, but far more obits of very young people. When reading the obit of a young person, I always wonder “what happened?” When the cause of death is not listed, I fear that it had to do with much self-abuse.

Read the rest of the story on the all new Native Sun News website: Many Indians die too young

(Contact Clara Caufield at

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