Senate hearing in Poplar examines Indian suicides

The Associated Press

POPLAR — At this northeastern Montana Indian reservation, ground zero of a Native American child suicide epidemic, there aren’t enough stories like 16-year-old Fanci Jackson’s.

Jackson considered hanging herself with a rope when she felt she couldn’t take any more bullying at school, the teen from Frazer told a U.S. Senate field panel taking testimony on the epidemic on Tuesday.

But then she changed her mind.

“I thought of my mom and dad and how much they love me. And if I leave, what would they do without me? But most kids don’t think,” she said in tears.

Jackson spoke at the hearing held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and prompted by an outbreak of youth suicides on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Six students from schools on the reservation killed themselves last year and nearly 20 attempted to do so, causing leaders from the reservation’s Sioux and Assiniboine tribes to declare an emergency.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death behind unintentional injuries among Indian children and young adults, and it is on the rise, according to the Indian Health Service.

The rash of suicides in Poplar shocked the community and prompted the U.S. Public Health Service to send emergency teams to provide counseling and mental health services Fort Peck last June.

More than 100 people, including some parents and relatives of suicide victims, attended the Tuesday afternoon hearing in the Poplar High School auditorium.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, presiding over the hearing, said the youth suicide rate on the Fort Peck Reservation that is 10 times the national average is unacceptable and has largely been overlooked.

“Recently when news reports were telling about celebrities and athletes in trouble, America’s 24-hour news cycle forgot a big story here in Montana,” Tester said. The suicide rate has increased the past decade. The problem is compounded by the reduced access to care due to the area’s remote location, and difficulties recruiting and retaining providers, said Rose Weahkee, director of the Indian Health Service’s Division of Behavioral Health.

The Fort Peck reservation struggles with high unemployment and rampant substance abuse. Poplar, with 880 residents, is the seat of government, while Wolf Point is the largest town with 2,500 people.

Some 45 percent of the residents live below the poverty level, including half of all children, according to tribal statistics.

Jackson was attending an off-reservation school 20 miles from her home when the bullying occurred. She said harassment and racial slurs were directed her way, and she didn’t know where to turn or who to tell.

You don’t want to tell anybody ‘cause you’re so scared,” Jackson said.

Fort Peck Tribal Judge Roxanne Gourneau testified beside two placards with her son Dalton’s picture, the same ones displayed at his funeral after the 17-year-old committed suicide in November 2010. She is suing the Wolf Point School District and school officials, accusing them of violating the district’s policy by not contacting her when Dalton was suspended and sent home for bringing a can of chewing tobacco to school. He shot himself that evening.

“Some people tell me to accept the way things are. I won’t accept the death of my son until the truth is told and I have closure,” Gourneau said. Dick Manning, of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center in Missoula, said his agency is seeing some progress in Poplar.

The center identified 47 middle school students at risk for suicide and highly vulnerable to assaults. After placing them in a mentoring program last year, the number of assaults against the at-risk students was noticeably reduced.

“It’s a simple program that can be duplicated in other communities,” Manning said.

Tester said it will take all federal, tribal, state and local agencies to communicate better and streamline the services they offer to successfully reduce the suicide rate on the reservation.

“I know the federal government can’t solve the problem alone. We need to facilitate agencies for these solutions,” he said.