Suicides in Pine Ridge and Culture of fear
Suicides in Pine Ridge and Culture of fear
By Delphine Red Shirt /

In the wake of the disturbing Jan. 24 events at the Rapid City hockey game, people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were further stunned by a series of suicides by very young and beautiful children. The suicides seem to have gone unnoticed and seem unrelated to the event. But, questions remain amid the sorrow over so many young lives taken by suicide — by self-inflicted hangings — in a short period of time after a terrible event. It seems too coincidental.

In assessing the Jan. 24 event in Rapid City, one could say at the least that it is a "Tale of Two Cities," one of "haves" and "have-nots." Or, one could compare it to the pre-civil rights era South, where another type of racism against the descendants of slavery existed. The comparison that seems to make the most sense is what American Indian/Native American scholars today are writing about: Colonialism.

One scholar, Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk author and educator calls it the "culture of fear," created by colonialism. A culture of fear that came out of a shameful past where land is taken: whether by force or treaty. Where, according to Taiaiake Alfred, the perpetrators know it is wrong to steal a country and further, to deny that it is a crime. But also, one of the dangers of this is the American Indian/Native American complacency, i.e. Lakota peoples not having access at all to their sacred He Sapas, the Black Hills. According to Taiaiake Alfred, what this creates is a victim mentality.

This culture of fear has created a legacy of racial and religious hatreds. What Taiaiake Alfred brings up can be applied all across America, where all tribes have lost land and are further denied access to sacred homelands, and until 1978, were not allowed to practice their own religions. But here in South Dakota, that loss of land is very real and recent, if you look at the historic timeline; the state didn't exist until 1889, immediately after the Pine Ridge reservation was established. The existence of Mount Rushmore carved in the Black Hills won't erase the fact that this land belonged to the Lakota speaking people, whose myths speak of prehistoric times. Nor will the massive carving of Crazy Horse help heal the loss.

What the taking of land by force or treaty has created, according to Taiaiake Alfred, is a culture of fear that comes out of violence and profound injustice. Rather than look directly at it, everyone in the state of South Dakota looks away. It is too much to acknowledge the taking of a homeland from a people that still exist. So that every time we Lakota people show up in Rapid City, we remind the non-Lakota people there that we are still here. That is the context — as best as I can understand the unprovoked attack on innocent children on Jan. 24 — of the relationship between the past and the present, between the non-Lakotas and the Lakotas, the original people of South Dakota.

It isn't going away, the trail of disturbed air remains after the event of the hateful act against those children in Rapid City. Whether the series of suicides on the Pine Ridge reservation where those children are from, is coincidental or not. Perhaps they are unrelated, but that being said, what is hard to deny, knowing history, is that the impact of lingering colonialism in the state creates a sense of hopelessness among us in our restricted homeland. Where everything beautiful like the Black Hills, the He Sapa, were taken away and what we are left with is a desolation that impacts us deeply. We are reminded of this everyday — but what happened on Jan. 24 to the Lakota children, is an illustration of this mutual culture of fear that surrounds all of us living with that history.


Delphine Red Shirt, Ph.D., is enrolled in the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation. She is an educator and author of two books: Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood (University of Nebraska Press, 1997) and Turtle Lung Woman's Granddaughter (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). She is currently completing a third book to be released in 2016.

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Suicides in Pine Ridge and Culture of fear