> ‘A pillar in the community’: Eileen Janis changed lives on Pine Ridge Reservation
The Bears on Pine Ridge: RIP Eileen Janis “Stands for the People”
RIP Eileen Janis "Stands for the People"
RIP Eileen Janis "Stands for the People"
Our hearts are heavy after losing a true hero today.
Eileen Janis was a pioneer in the fight against youth suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation for decades. She was an unbelievable source of strength and support for the community. A fearless leader. We have been blessed, from day one, to be in her presence during this film project. She was a mentor and advocate for life, through and through. Eileen, you will forever be missed.
We love you Eileen ❤️Posted by The Bears on Pine Ridge on Saturday, November 19, 2022
‘A pillar in the community’
The late Eileen Janis changed lives on Pine Ridge Reservation
Monday, December 5, 2022
A woman who spent years battling the epidemic of youth suicide among her people, the Oglala Lakota of South Dakota, died recently.
Eileen Rose Janis, 61, died November 19 at the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service Hospital in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, after a brief bout with cancer.
For more than a decade, Janis had worked alongside Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory fighting to save the lives of countless youth, children and teenagers who had lost hope and considered or tried to commit suicide.
Eileen Janis is seen on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in December 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
“She was a pillar in the community,” DeCory said. “The whole reservation was her community.
“We know that she touched the lives of many,” said DeCory.
For years, DeCory and Janis worked side-by-side, working to give hope to youth through the BEAR Project
, a nonprofit youth program based in Pine Ridge. They do this work in a place nearly bereft of hope, where 44 percent of people live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is nearly 70 percent, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, left, and Eileen Janis are seen on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in December 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
It’s a place where alcoholism and domestic violence are rampant and where children take their own lives at alarmingly high rates.
In 2014 alone, 14 youth killed themselves, prompting the tribe to issue a state of emergency. The tribe issued another state of emergency in August 2020 when the tribe saw nine suicides and 177 suicide attempts from January to August alone.
From 2014 to June 2019, 43 people died by suicide and more than 850 attempted suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation, according to the tribe.
This was the challenge Janis and DeCory took on each day.
Eileen Janis and Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory started the BEAR Project to address the needs of youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
They did so by providing a safe space for youth where they could find food and company, where they could plan futures and take part in art camps and skateboarding competitions. The BEAR (Be Excited About Reading) Project spread its message of hope to other youth on other reservations as well, hosting theatrical skits for those youth.
Inside their “Bear Cave,” the two provided food, books and school supplies to any child or teenager who walked through the door. They hosted numerous youth events, concerts, powwows, parades, anything that might – even for a moment – lift the spirit of the youth.
Now DeCory must continue this work alone, without the nearly 6-foot-tall Janis to lean on.
“It’s a tough one,” she said.
Noel Bass, a filmmaker producing a film about the BEAR Project, said Janis learned from her mother about the importance of public service and tried to live up to her mother’s example throughout her life.
He said Janis and DeCory have managed to bring hope and healing despite the countless challenges they face in doing so.
“What they do year after year sets them apart from anyone else who’s doing social services,” he said.
One of the long-running efforts of the BEAR Project has been collecting women and men’s formal wear, shoes, cosmetics and jewelry for prom season on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Eileen Janis is seen on the far left. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
He said it may take years before people realize how important the work Janis and DeCory did was to the Lakota people.
“I think her legend will grow because she will be missed daily,” Bass said. “She’ll never be forgotten.”
Janis, whose Lakota name meant “Stands for the People,” was also a prominent member of the American Indian Movement and was close friends with Leonard Peltier, an AIM activist convicted of killing two FBI agents in 1975.
Eileen Janis is seen on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in June 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Peltier, who many consider a political prisoner, issued a statement following Janis’s death.
“She was very good people who loved her people and fought for the kids who wanted to commit suicide,” he wrote. “She saved many of them lives. She wanted me to get out to help her so bad and I tried to go home to do so.
“We all will miss you Eileen. You are one of a kind. Doksha
my dear, see you soon. Doksha
(see you later),” Peltier wrote.
Eileen Janis, far left, takes part in a donation drive on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in December 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk