PINE RIDGE | When she started her plea to her adult audience for more activities for young people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Angela Blacksmith Dreaming Bear's quiet, confident voice gave no hint of the horror she was about to reveal.
Angela, a 17-year-old high school student, tried to commit suicide last year. Her attempt predated the youth-suicide epidemic that has claimed nearly 20 lives on the reservation since last December.
So when Angela spoke Thursday afternoon to about 40 people at the Justice Center for the People south of the community of Pine Ridge, her story gripped the audience, which included U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.
The two sat with Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele at the front of a large conference room, with long tables making a U-shape in front of them. Every seat was filled with tribe members and advocates, many others stood. Thune and Noem rarely spoke, choosing instead to listen to the tribe's requests for government help.
"I am a student, a person coming from suicide," Angela said. After her attempt, she spent four days at Regional West, the mental-health wing of Rapid City Regional Hospital in Rapid City, then was sent back to the reservation.
"There is no follow-up," she said, her calm dissolving into tears. "You come home, nothing. Nowhere to go."
She fought the tears as she appealed for more facilities to engage local youth.
"I'm glad to be here to talk," she said. "Our voices are not being heard."
Hers certainly was, as her story, simply told, quieted the crowd, so much so that her long, deep breath as she finished was audible across the room.
Only a little more than an hour before, Noem and Thune were at Red Cloud Indian School. In separate elementary-school classrooms, the two lawmakers read books to giggling, squirming youngsters who seemed to enjoy the break from regular lessons.
The contrast was powerful: In elementary school, pupils could still laugh without care, but when their high-school counterparts spoke of the tribe's needs, they had already lived through horror.
Tristan Terkildsen said his school in Wanblee closes late in the afternoon, leaving no place for teens to escape from a troubled home life. "If there is alcohol in the home, abuse and stuff," he said, "they have to put up with that."
Tyrell Andrews, a Pine Ridge High School student, said, "You can see how dull and boring it is (for young people.) We need to get more recreation places, like a 24-hour open gym, a place youths can go, that can help stop suicides."
His legs pumped nervously under the table as he told of his experience: "A couple of friends took their own lives because they had nowhere to go."
Jordan Carlow, also from Pine Ridge High School, said she sees the same things, adding that the emptiness of reservation life prompts some to turn to alcohol or drop out of school.
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Such expressions of desperation already have prompted action by tribal officials and the federal government. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has spent considerable money on fixing up ball fields and adding such touches as an improved skateboard park.
A recent $400,000 emergency grant from the Administration for Native Americans will be used by the tribe to promote youth activities and other community projects.
But there are other proposed solutions in the works. Robin Tapio, a Tribal Council member who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, spoke of the need for crisis centers and a wellness center on the reservation.
Yellow Bird Steele agreed, saying treatment at Regional West isn't adequate because the caregivers there "don't know the lifestyles of the reservation. We need our own crisis center."
Charles Sitting Bull, director of behavioral health at the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge, said that when he grew up in Rapid City, there was a program called Neighborhood Health Corps that employed, at low wages, young people who would learn a trade and, at the same time, work on community improvement projects.
He recommended the reservation look into creating such a program. The youngsters could earn money that would "give students autonomy, they could do what they wanted with their own income."
In addition, they could help build the facilities needed for their activities.
The session at the Justice Center for the People covered many topics other than the suicides. Speakers such as the reservation's Attorney General Tatwein Means, Police Chief Eugenio B. White Hawk and Development and Compliance Manager for Public Safety Monica Terkildsen said money is lacking for police protection and the prosecution of offenders.
Near the end of the discussion, Thune suggested there is a "correlation between this issue of law and order and the suicides," adding that "a safer place" would be a better place for all in the community, including the young and the elderly.
Not feeling safe, he said, leads to helplessness, and perhaps to suicide.
After the session, Noem said she was impressed with Charles Sitting Bull's recommendation of developing a training and project program to keep young people busy, similar to the neighborhood youth corps he participated in when he was young.
"That could be a way for the young to go," she said.
Angela Blacksmith Dreaming Bear, who was 16 at the time of her suicide attempt, said her life has improved since then. When she was at her lowest, she said, she had "turned away from my own family."
And even when she returned from her four days of treatment at Regional West, "Things started getting rough again," but she worked through the problems, and now she is getting along with her family and looking forward to going to college.
Hers is a success story, she said, but "I know a lot more who go through the same thing and come home and have to try very hard to not fall back into that hole again."