A little boy, 7 years old, goes into a school bathroom on the Pine Ridge Reservation, takes his belt off, ties it around his neck and tries to hang himself.
“Why?” they asked him after saving his life.
“Because I’m tired,” the child says. “When I go home, I have to be the man of the house, and I don’t want to be the man of the house. My mom says she needs time for herself. She says, ‘I’ve been here all day. I have to take care of your little brother and sister. I need some time to myself.’ ”
On Thursday evening at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, an expressive and impassioned Lakota woman named Tiny Decory told that story to an intimate gathering that had come to hear about how cultural identity can help stem the tide of death in Indian Country.
Decory, who works with Pine Ridge’s Sweetgrass suicide prevention efforts, shared a year of heartache on the reservation, starting:
— Feb. 6, when a 17-year-old high school senior gifted as a rodeo performer and as an athlete playing volleyball and basketball hung herself. She had been bullied, Decory said, with terrible things left on her locker or posted on Facebook.
— April 6, when a friend of that 17-year-old got up at 7 one morning and hung herself, too.
— June, when Decory got a note from a young lady who said: “I’m just not supposed to be here. There’s nothing you can do to help me.” And she overdosed.
— Aug. 5, when a 19-year-old hung himself.
— Aug. 15, when a second 19-year-old left a note that said he couldn’t handle the divorce of his parents. He couldn’t deal with going to school and working and taking care of his siblings. So he walked a short distance from his home to a cherry tree where he used to pray with his eagle feather, and hung himself, Decory said, on the same day that his GED arrived in the mail.
— September, when a 17-year-old put a bullet in his head.
— December, when a young father of two sons who couldn’t find work and wouldn’t be able to provide his boys with any kind of Christmas went into the hills and hung himself.
— And Dec. 15, when a 15-year-old girl hung herself.
“Our children say there is a black spirit that follows them,” Decory said. “They say, ‘I saw the black spirit, and he talked to me and he made a noose for my neck and he wants me to try it on.’ ”
But her message Thursday evening, indeed that of all the speakers, was one of hope, and of promoting the idea that ongoing efforts to affirm Lakota, Dakota and Nakota cultural identity really will and do help ease the plague of intentional death
Decory has put together a group called Be Excited About Reading, or BEAR. Established initially as a way to promote reading in a place where more than half of a freshmen class don’t see graduation as seniors, members of BEAR often have experienced their own suicidal ideations and attempts. So along with reading events, they dress up as animals and other pop culture characters and perform skits that focus on self-esteem, on bullying, and on ways to help youth cope.
The BEARs know what it means to be cut down from a tree or to have their stomachs pumped, Decory said. They know how it feels to be bullied. They speak a language that their friends and peers understand, a language strengthened by their own experiences and by the power of becoming invested again in their culture.
Along with the skits, they concentrate on cultural teachings, support of family, support of society, listening to and caring for elders, finding spiritual healing in traditions like the inipi, or sweat lodge. And they reacquaint their youth with the power of their language. They learn that okiciya pi means helping one another, that wounsila means compassion for one another, that wowicola means belief.
They learn, as white society should learn, that tribal spirituality is not a religion. It is a way of life, a defining of culture that tells the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota who they are, how they are, and how they act in relation to each other and the world around them.
“It is vitally important that the children are proud of themselves, who they are,” said Chad Nielsen, a counselor with Lutheran Social Services who has worked with countless tribal youth here in Sioux Falls and eastern South Dakota.
Affirming that cultural identity can instill that pride and stop the killing. He and Decory and Professor Charles Woodard of South Dakota State University, who is co-founder of the Oak Lake Tribal Writers Society and spoke Thursday evening, all believe that to be true.
“People ask me, ‘How many lives have you saved?’ ” Decory said. “I tell them, ‘I can’t tell you. But I can tell you how many we have lost.’ ”
One or one thousand, the answer is always the same. It’s too many.