...If this were happening in any other county in America, politicians would be calling on their governor to intervene. But since Oglala Lakota County is part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, not many people outside this community seem to know or care about what’s happening here.
In Pine Ridge, site of the massacre at Wounded Knee, commonplace teen angst is exacerbated by extreme poverty, historical trauma and racial discrimination. As a high school English teacher and newcomer, I understood early on that kids here come to know mortality much sooner than most. At 26, I’ve only been to one funeral: for my great-grandmother, who passed away peacefully at 97. Ask my students and they’ll tell you that when it comes to funerals they’ve lost track.
When I ask non-Native South Dakotans to help me understand why suicide waves like these happen, their explanations too often invoke—either directly or through insinuations—the notion of the “Indian Problem,” a twisted, blatantly racist policy the U.S. government first used in the 1880s to dissolve reservations and force Native Americans to assimilate to white culture.