A close friend from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of over 40,000 Oglala Sioux, posted some devastating news on Facebook a few days ago. A family member had committed suicide, and it was the second suicide in the family within two days. These were girls 13 and 14 years old.
This is devastating news for anyone, in any family. But in Pine Ridge, like other indigenous communities who are facing a reality of existential distress while still determined to keep the strength and integrity of their cultural identity at the forefront -- after a history of genocide and systematic attacks by governments, religion, among others against their heritage -- this is not unusual news for the families who live on the reservation. Rather these are unnecessary casualties in an epidemic that has become more pronounced with time.
Having been to Pine Ridge in 2013 to do a story on Lakota Veterans (which be seen here), we had become close with certain members of the tribe, so that when hearing about what was happening on the reservation, there has been an indelible sense of connection to the place and the people.
The Pine Ridge Reservation, one of seven recognized reservations of the Lakota, has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the West. It also has a pervasive poverty that is just as easily seen. The wealth of beauty is contradicted by the reality the Lakota are forced to face in terms of socio-economic development and its lack thereof, gang activity, substance abuse, and violence--assault, murder, sexual violence, domestic violence, and self-inflicted violence. Pine Ridge has the highest murder rate of any reservation.
It also has the lowest per capita income. Additionally, there is some evidence, revealed during the course of researching our previous article on Lakota veterans, that the United States government still holds the overall reservation responsible for incidents in the 1970's -- the Wounded Knee Incident and the deaths of Federal agents during the standoff that led to Leonard Peltier's infamous arrest and subsequent incarceration.
This has created a history of indifference, if not outright hostility, when it comes to the community of Pine Ridge, who for the most part have been ignored, if not subjugated to continued discrimination.
In having asked friend and colleague Wade Davis, author of The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (2009), and named by National Geographic as one of their Explorers of the Millenium--including for his extensive work among indigenous populations--for his thoughts, he responded with the following:
"I just learned last night that the son of a close friend of mine, arguably the most successful Haida artist, committed suicide. Word of suicides in native communities come to me with the regularity of a north wind. Were such rates of self-inflicted death to occur among white kids in any town in America it would generate international news. Instead these agonies of native families are ignored, or at best it seems dismissed as but the final act of the Conquest."
The conquest, in this case, is that of indigenous lands and peoples of North and South America, while also representing, in its even broader macrocosm, the similar tragedy of the systematic destruction of the lives, cultures, and natural environments of indigenous populations internationally, on every continent except Antarctica.
What "civilization," international business, governments and development have wrought have in many cases been nothing short of an eradication. And this has been the case for over 600 years.