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Not far down the hill from where Alex James Locke lost all hope, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is trying to prevent others from repeating the devastating decision made by the 20-year-old.

In the home of his parents in the community known as Evergreen, near Porcupine, Locke committed suicide late in the summer of 2014.

But in the small park near the family home, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has added a small skateboard park and is improving a baseball field. The tribe's motivation is to expand activity opportunities for reservation youngsters to prevent youth from falling into the same depression that entrapped Locke and led him to take his own life. 

As of this month, 19 young people on the reservation had committed suicide since December of 2014. But rays of hope are emerging in the form of commitments by the tribe and a grant from the federal government.

The Administration for Native Americans has awarded an emergency grant of $400,000 to the Oglala Sioux Tribe to pay for activities and programs to stem the tide of youth suicides. The $400,000 is meant to cover the fiscal year of 2015-2016, with an additional $400,000 to be awarded for the next fiscal year.

An agency of the federal government will be monitoring whether the tribe's use of the money helps.  

Kevin Yellow Bird Steele, a spokesman for the tribe, said recently that the money will be used "to provide youth activities ... in hope to get kids' minds off suicide and move to a more positive approach to life."

In meetings with young people last winter, Steele said, tribal leaders learned that young people say there is nothing to do on the reservation, so the grant is designed to provide new positive outlets for youth.

He added that such activities funded by the grant may include beautifying the reservation, planting gardens and trees, organizing community dinners and other social events, and adding sports such as horse competitions and softball tournaments.

"We're trying to get communities involved, to bring people together," he added.

A serious challenge

Yellow Bird Steele is a realist, acknowledging that even with such collaboration and new positive options for youth, there are still serious alcohol and drug problems on the reservation. But the spreading of the federal grants over two years, he said, gives the tribe the opportunity "to continue to get things done." 

A press release from the Administration for Native Americans said the hope is to create student youth councils, peer-to-peer mentoring and Lakota cultural-awareness activities.

The press release said that in June, Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to present the sad facts of the suicide epidemic among the tribe's young. At that time, President Steele said 11 young people on the reservation had committed suicide since December.

He also said there had been an additional 176 youth suicide attempts in that time, and 229 people who were treated for "suicidal ideation," a phrase that means people were forming or conceiving thoughts to take their own lives.

Dr. Richard McKeon, chief of the Suicide Prevention Bureau of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, said the grant money is intended to be used "for youth to be engaged in meaningful activity."

But he added that activities need to be part of a broad approach to treat what he called "a very significant suicide cluster" on Pine Ridge.

"Such clusters," he added, "have occurred (previously) in Indian Country over the years. This is the most recent example of that."

A cluster can come about in part, he explained, when suicide takes on the aura of being a viable way out of hopelessness or depression.

"When a young person has been exposed to multiple suicide deaths," McKeon said, "it normalizes suicide as a response to problems."

When the suicides began multiplying last winter on Pine Ridge, tribal members assembled at several events to seek solutions. Interviewed at a gathering in early March, a group of female students said bullying, including cyberbullying on social media outlets such as Facebook, often pushed youngsters further toward suicide.

McKeon said he didn't have specific information as to what was prompting the suicides on the reservation, but he said bullying in any form can cause stress.

Multi-pronged effort

The prescription for treating a suicide cluster has several facets, McKeon said, including community involvement in creating and sustaining meaningful activities; identifying those who are most at risk, such as people who have made an attempt or are talking about suicide; and having the community health systems in place to take action.

The emphasis on increasing opportunities to participate in activities has prodded improvements at the fields in Evergreen and elsewhere. Some of the work has been done by contractors, paid from proceeds from a bond issued by the tribe, and some has been done by volunteers.

Gary Ruse, financial consultant to the tribe, said projects have been undertaken in all nine of the reservation's districts.

For instance, at the Pine Ridge Park, the tribe has enlarged a skate park. "We added a lot of ramps this year," said Mike Carlow, a contractor whose company has worked on the skate park and other youth-sports projects.

Improvements also are evident on the basketball court at the park, with new hoops installed, and on the nearby baseball field, which got a new fence, thanks to volunteer labor.

The Wade Vitalis baseball field, in Pine Ridge Village, got fencing and a rebuilt concession and announcer stands behind a new backstop. Metal roofs were added to the dugouts. 

Until now, the baseball field at Evergreen, which is about 20 years old, did not have lights, Carlow said. Six light poles now ring the field, although they're not yet connected. As a result, there will be two lighted baseball fields in the area, including one at Porcupine School.

McKeon, the suicide expert, said that after the federal grants are awarded, federal officials "do monitor and make recommendations" about how the money is spent.

"If we are concerned whether something is effective," he said, "we communicate that as well."

One tragic tale

When Alex James Locke shot himself in the head a little more than a year ago, he was only the third suicide of 2014 on the reservation.

He had been a student at the Oglala Lakota College, studying to be an automotive technician, his father, Garrell Little, of Evergreen, said in a recent interview.

There were signs that Locke was suffering. "He had talked about seeing dark spirits before," Little said, but he added that his son had sounded optimistic about getting into treatment for an addiction.

But as Aug. 31 turned to Sept. 1, Locke, while sitting with two friends in the basement of his parents' home, pulled the trigger despite pleas from his friends not to do it.

More than three months passed before there was another suicide on the reservation. When a 14-year-old boy killed himself on Dec. 17, and a 15-year-old girl did the same on Christmas Day, the suicide epidemic was underway with a ferocity that sparked both local and federal action.

Little said the tribe's commitment to improving sports facilities and expanding youth activities can help end the sad stream of total despair.

"I think (such efforts) show the kids that people do care," he said, singling out the improvements at the Evergreen park.

"Before," he said, "there wasn't much there."

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