WASHINGTON – An ongoing debate about how to combat an epidemic of Native American youth suicides boiled down to a need for funding at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Wednesday.
The White House estimates the rate of suicides among native youths is 2.5 times the national average. Some communities report disturbing trends of suicide clusters and the practice becoming routine.
C.J. Clifford, Tribal Council member for the Oglala Sioux tribe of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, reported teens sharing suicide ideations on social media. Darrell Seki, chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in Red Lake, Minnesota, testified about a 9-year-old child taking his own life just two weeks ago.
Growing up, Joaquin Gallegos lived on and off the Jicarilla Apache reservation just south of the Utes in New Mexico. He can count 30 friends and family who have either attempted or completed suicide.
“It’s sadly becoming the norm, but it’s not normal,” said Gallegos, who now works as a detoxification and rehabilitation research assistant at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health based at the University of Colorado, Denver. “It should be a shock, but it’s something that people don’t want to acknowledge because it forces them to face their deficiencies and their legal obligation to tribes.”
The tribal leaders testifying Wednesday echoed the government’s duty to Indian country and requested full funding of programs to help natives.
“Sequestration is a nightmare for tribes like Red Lake that rely on federal funds,” Seki said. “After the crisis is over, the funding disappears.”
The National Congress of American Indians is requesting an increase of $815 million from 2015 budget levels for the department of Indian Health Services – under which mental-health programs highlighted for combatting suicides is housed. However, the 2016 Senate Interior Appropriations bill, only increases the allocation to IHS by $135 million above 2015 levels.
“The appropriations process in Congress is broken, in large part due to the sequester,” said Philip Clelland, spokesman for Sen. Michael Bennett. “Congress is barely finding ways to keep the lights on, let alone identifying a path forward to address pressing challenges like suicide and mental health. It needs to do better for the good of the country.”
Back in Colorado, Gallegos agrees. It feels defeating to operate in a landscape where funding may last for two years and then it’s gone, he said.
But even without sequestration, Native American programs were operating at less than 60 percent of actual need, as calculated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
After giving his own testimony, acting director of IHS, Robert McSwain, acknowledged the difference between the calculated need and the current funding levels for his department, but he said the president’s budget was a good proposal. He said difficult choices have to be made.
But some on the committee looked to other budget priorities.
“Unfortunately, this year it seems we can put more spending into defense instead of protecting our native youth,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Gallegos, tribal leaders and committee members like Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, also stressed that the issue goes beyond the need for mental-health services, and is tied to general lack of basic needs in Indian Country that creates a sense of hopelessness among youths.
“They feel they will always be subjected to the injustices suffered by their forefathers,” Clifford said.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mariam Baksh is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.