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Indian teen suicide: 'A tragedy of enormous proportions'
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This quilt remembers people from the Standing Rock reservation who have committed suicide. Tribal members displayed it during a U.S. Senate hearing on Indian suicide in Bismarck, North Dakota, Monday. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
American Indian teens in the Upper Midwest are 10 times more likely than other teenagers to commit suicide. A federal officials says since the March 21 shootings on the Red Lake Indian reservation, two teens have committed suicide and several have attempted to kill themselves. U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., held a hearing in Bismarck, North Dakota Monday on teen suicide among Indians. Dorgan is vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which will take up the issue of teen suicide in June.

Bismarck, N.D. — Sen. Dorgan says cries for help from Indian reservations are going unanswered because of a lack of funding. As an example, he points to the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota. Dorgan says in the last year, 288 Indian teenagers attempted suicide, and 10 were successful.

Dorgan says he's driven to action by the story of a 14-year-old girl who killed herself after showing signs of depression and missing weeks of school.

"If a young child is missing 90 days of school, lying in bed in a fetal position in desparate condition, somebody needs to be available to provide help," Dorgan said.

Three teenage girls from the Standing Rock reservation testified. They all have friends who have killed themselves.

Michelle Fasthorse is a senior at Standing Rock. She says many teens simply feel like they have no one to talk to.

"I think because we teens are very confused about life and have a lot of stress and pressure on us, we become depressed," said Fasthorse. "Some teens have absolutely no trust in anyone, due to the fact that no one is there for them to talk to. That's probably why they don't talk to counselors and try to get help."

Fasthorse says everyone talks about helping, but nothing happens, only more suicides. Standing Rock freshman Alayna Eagle Shield expressed her distrust as she ended her testimony.

"I'd like to say thank you for listening to us youth. I know you want to hear what we say, but most adults won't listen because all we are is youth," said Eagle Shield. "We don't have a Ph.D. or other credential behind our names. I believe you already decided what you want to hear."

And it's not just teenagers expressing frustration. Dr. Doug McDonald is director of the Indians into Psychology program at the University of North Dakota. He has two decades of experience working on Indian reservations. McDonald says there's a frightening lack of data about American Indian psychosocial behavior.

McDonald says tribes often close their doors to researchers because they've been exploited in the past. He urged tribal leaders to participate in research and treatment based on Indian values.

"Reopening those doors will not be easy. Yet it may become neccesary in order to gain a greater understanding of this monstrous problem that is causing our children to believe that a gun or a handful of pills is a more worthwhile option than asking someone to talk," said McDonald. McDonald says he fears a "rising tsunami" of teen suicides on reservations.

Cynthia Mala says American Indians need to heal a wounded spirit. Mala says she tried to kill herself as a teenager growing up on a North Dakota reservation. She's now president of the Spirit Lake tribal college.

Mala says the depth of the problem was brought home to her when a friend visited from England. Her friend noticed something about all the children they met on the reservation.

"She loved to be around the children, but at the same time she was saddened because our children did not have that spark of life in their eyes," said Mala. "There was almost a sense of desparation in young, young kids."

Mala says kids, parents and teachers all lack the resources to overcome the despair that's endemic on reservations. Mala says there are success stories, and they should be used as models on other reservations.

Federal officials testified there are new projects in the works. Starting this fall, U.S. and Canadian officials will kick off a North American campaign to stop suicide among indigenous teens.

Sen. Dorgan says even more needs to be done. He says some people want to keep ignoring a problem that's been overlooked far too long.

"The alternative to that is to simply allow what is happening to continue, and say nothing, because we're concerned that to say something will generate publicity," said Dorgan. "I think the only way we're going to address it is to look it square in the eyes and say, 'Here's what's happening.' It's a tragedy of enormous proportions, and we must address it honestly."

Nearly 100 people attended the hearing in Bismarck. After the official testimony concluded, several parents approached Sen. Dorgan to tearfully share their personal stories of a lost son or daughter.

Some of those stories may well be shared with Congress when the full Senate Indian Affairs committee holds a hearing on teen suicide in Washington in June.