December 7, 2015

Writing a New Narrative for Pine Ridge

There are positive alternatives to the negative images in the media about suicide in Native communities.

Like many communities across the United States, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is confronting a youth suicide crisis. But when covering events in Pine Ridge, the media often focuses on the negative aspects and stereotypes of life in Native communities, including the idea that suicide is just an accepted part of life on the reservation.

EDC’s Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs, who has supported suicide prevention initiatives in Pine Ridge for more than 20 years, believes that negative messages in the media about life in Native communities discourage young people in need from seeking help. The media is ignoring the real story about the community, she says, which is one of hope, not tragedy.

Q: Why is it important to have more positive stories in the media about suicide prevention in Indian country?

Iron Cloud Two Dogs: The issues leading to death by suicide are deep, spiritually complex, and intergenerational in nature. Focusing so much on despair misses a significant part of the story, which is that many people in American Indian communities are working hard to promote peace, healing, and resilience.

Q: What does the media miss when it focuses on the numbers when covering youth suicide in Pine Ridge?

Iron Cloud Two Dogs: One narrative that is consistently overlooked is that members of Pine Ridge make tremendous efforts to save lives and build resilience through culture-based activities. Adults and community members take part in the spiritual lifeways of the Lakota people, strengthening them and instilling a sense of hope. But this is not publicized, and it’s not seen as a viable strategy to support healing and mental health, either.

Stories about Pine Ridge often talk about bleak living conditions, but they don’t often address the underlying issue of historical trauma, which has had a direct impact on American Indian communities. It took over 100 years of devastation to overwhelm Native people, and it’s going to take some time for Native people to recover from that.

Q: What is the value of suicide prevention programs that are culturally based?

Iron Cloud Two Dogs: Research has shown that programs that promote connectedness, culture, and family strengthen individuals’ protective factors against suicide. This is important because young people who are emotionally resilient will be less inclined to consider suicide.

Q: What gives you hope for a more positive future?

Iron Cloud Two Dogs: There are many fine examples of suicide prevention efforts in Native communities. For instance, the White Mountain Apache Tribe has created a suicide surveillance initiative to monitor trends and is also engaging tribal elders in prevention activities. At the Lakota Healing Camp on the Pine Ridge Reservation, young people receive a Lakota spirit name and are offered opportunities to participate in healing ceremonies. These activities strengthen their identities and help them see that they are part of a larger community that cares about them. Hopefully, the successes of programs like these will result in additional resources, including long-term and strategic funding opportunities.