The hard lives- and high suicide rate – of Native American children on reservations

03/10/2014

A national task force was recently created by the Justice Department to examine the effects of violence on American Indian and Alaska Native children. The number of Native Americans taking their own lives is more than three times the national average, and up to 10 times higher on some reservations. Task force officials, stunned by the level of suicide in these communities, are investigating further details and recommendations on ways to mitigate violence and suicide within these communities.

Theresa M. Pouley, the Chief Judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington State, details some of the negative circumstances disproportionately facing these children today including higher substance-abuse rates, exposure to trauma, and rate of abuse. She also notes that, “Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.”

In a hearing held on the reservation of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community last month, Associate Attorney General Tony West reported being shocked after discovering that a group of 15 teenagers he asked had all known a young person that had died by suicide. Byron Dorgan, Co-Chairman of the task force and a former Senator from North Dakota, explains the death of a 14-year-old girl on the reservation. “Avis Little Wind died of suicide because mental-health treatment wasn’t available on that reservation.”

The Justice Department task force is gathering data and will not offer its final recommendations to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. until this fall. In the meantime, a group of teenagers on the reservation will take action by beginning a two-day course on suicide prevention.

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