Dancing from the Heart: A rehearsal at Zuni Pueblo

Published in Indian Country Today in January 2013. For more photographs, go here.

The late afternoon sun slanted through puffy clouds and played over the surface of Zuni Pueblo’s sacred Corn Mountain. Small golden heads of wild sunflowers dappled the field at the base of the mesa, which rises 1,000 feet over the pueblo’s western New Mexico village. Against this imposing high-desert backdrop, a dance rehearsal got underway.

Seven-member Soaring Eagle, the first of two groups to run through their paces that day, adjusted their headdresses and other regalia. Meanwhile, Tammy Weebothee, a dancer and organizer of the rehearsal, pointed out a tall spire, nearly the height of the mesa and just south of it (to its right in the photographs here). It appeared to represent two figures, one taller than the other, wrapped in a blanket. “They’re a brother and sister who died to save the community when flood waters rose.” She noted pale striations across the russet face of Corn Mountain—traces left behind by the foaming waters, she said.

Soaring Eagle lived up to its name. As the dancers moved through long chains of intricate unison footwork, they seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground. Meanwhile, their elegant hand gestures floated above the footwork. Such light-footed elegance may look delicate, but requires strength and timing—skills that have earned them Zuni Fair dance championships and appearances throughout the Southwest.

The music supports the dance and makes this possible, said Weebothee. “The drumbeat is the heartbeat of Mother Nature. When you dance, it carries you, and you become one with the earth.”

Soaring Eagle performs social dances, as opposed to religious ones, said group leader and musician Arlen Quetawki, Jr. They’re traditional pieces, but they’re also creative, he said. “Working within the Zuni tradition, we compose our own steps, hand gestures and songs. The lyrics have to do with rain, plentiful crops, good health and longevity. We don’t perform for ourselves but to bring the audience good feelings. If anyone is ill or down on their luck, we want to give them a bit of enjoyment.”

In addition to appearing at cultural centers and festivals, the group has performed in the Zuni public schools. The younger members of the troupe love traveling, Quetawki said—and they have lots of energy. After performing at a Grand Canyon venue, they hiked 3½ miles to the canyon floor. “Our dream is to be in the Macy’s parade,” he added. “It would put the spotlight on Pueblo people.” Whether the setting is obviously educational or not, the group seeks to teach while dancing, he said.

Soaring Eagle is one of dozens of dance troupes in the pueblo, with as many as 40 participating in the annual Zuni Fair, according to Soaring Eagle musician Howard Lesarlley. For most performers, dancing professionally provides a small second income, though a few groups have dancers under contract, and they can make a living at their art, said Weebothee.

As Soaring Eagle’s rehearsal came to a close, pick-up trucks pulled up bearing 14 members of Anshe:kwe, shown below, which has performed coast to coast and has also won Zuni Fair championships. The dancers leapt out of the trucks to don brilliantly colored macaw- and pheasant-trimmed headdresses and other regalia, line up and begin their most popular work, the Shield Dance.

Whereas Soaring Eagle’s style was lyrical, that of Anshe:kwe, led by musician Serfino Cachini, was dramatic. The corps of female dancers displayed unison footwork in subtle, shifting rhythms—linking high-energy runs, stamps, step-hops and toe touches with precision and panache. Their performance was a definition in dance form of cohesion and cooperation.

Meanwhile, three male dancers wove in and out of the line of women—pacing, jumping and punctuating their steps with occasional high-pitched cries. Their movements were grounded and sinuous and included improvisation. “We’re portraying warriors in this dance,” explained the eldest male dancer, McKeffe Chapella, left. “And when warriors go into battle, they have to improvise.”

Choreography is a collective effort for Anshe:kwe, said Cachini. “We sit down and brainstorm. One of the group members or I will show a movement; we’ll all try it out, work with it, then decide together if it looks good or not. We discuss everything—the words of the songs, the hand gestures and every detail of the regalia.”

How often do they rehearse? Peals of laughter from the dancers greeted Cachini’s response: “Every day! We spend too much time together! We’re like a family, and in fact we’re all relatives. Dancing is our world. What we do comes from the heart.”

Anshe:kwe’s women were wearing dance dresses they’d finished the night before (“hot off the sewing machines,” said Weebothee) in preparation for their next appearance, in Hopi, Arizona. The troupe performs almost every week, for private events like wedding receptions and graduation parties, as well as for public ones. Anshe:kwe is 27-strong at its largest, and when it travels, accompanying family members swell the size of the entourage to several times that number. The group recently appeared at the Grand Canyon, and younger troupe members joked about jumping on the glass-bottomed Skywalk (“You could feel it shake!”).

Most of the dancers have practiced their art since they were able to walk, said Weebothee. In the rehearsal at Corn Mountain, the tiniest member of Anshe:kwe, three-year-old Vanessa Kallestewa, shown below, followed the older girls, clutching feathers in her little fists as she tried out the steps. “That’s how it is,” said Cachini. “The little ones learn by watching the older dancers. We also coach each other.”

Zuni dance is about more than steps, according to Weebothee. “For us, it’s an heirloom, and we dance to maintain our traditions. Through it, dancers learn respect, responsibility and cultural awareness. They develop proficiency at positive social interaction. And they learn to dress themselves in traditional attire.”

Weebothee and her uncle and brother have taught dance in the pueblo’s public schools. “If our dance students had disciplinary issues, we did not penalize them. Instead, we talked to the whole group about the issue, as though it was a family. As a result, the students grew.” The Zuni public-school dance group also inspired others. When they performed in a California city, Weebothee recalled, audience members decided to use their own heritage dance to attract youth to something meaningful and positive.

The rehearsal broke up, and the dancers headed back to the village. The sun sank through the brilliant blue sky, picking out yellow wildflowers, green junipers, swaths of pink desert sand and the russet of Corn Mountain—costuming the ancient Zuni landscape in colors as vivid as the dance.

Seeing Zuni Dance

To learn when and where Zuni dance troupes are appearing, at the pueblo or outside it, contact Zuni Visitor Center (505-782-7238; www.zunitourism.com).

If you’re going to the pueblo, make the visitor center your first stop. It’s a low adobe building on the north side of Route 53, east of the village. You can purchase a photo permit—required if you plan to take any photographs at all—and find out about places to eat and stay, walking tours, the community’s Ashiwi Awan Museum and several trading posts right in town offering authentic Zuni jewelry, stone carving, pottery and other crafts. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo.

Rough Justice in Indian Child Welfare

Published on Investigative News Network affiliate 100Reporters.com in December 2012; an excerpt published in Huffington Post in January 2013. See my additional ICWA stories hereherehere and here.

In a basement interrogation room in South Dakota, agents of the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation were on the firing line. A group of Native American children were claiming sexual and physical abuse by their white adoptive parents, with whom they’d first been placed as foster kids.

South Dakota was already under Congressional scrutiny for the high number of Native children it takes from their homes and tribes then places, for the most part, with white foster families or in white-run group homes—seemingly to claim a higher share of federal foster care funding. Though Native children make up about 13 percent of South Dakota’s child population, they are typically more than 50 percent of those in care, according to federal figures. A new tribal report confirms that few Native foster children are placed with relatives, in so-called kinship care. The tribes prefer this, but it captures no federal foster care dollars, so South Dakota avoids it, says the report.

The state’s response to the Native children’s abuse accusations offers a rare look into its foster-care system. The response also raises questions about South Dakota’s willingness to protect Native American children housed with white families, particularly when homes that are presented as safe havens turn into places of abuse.

Startlingly, the agents who summoned the children to the interrogation that day in November 2011 were working hard to get the kids to recant their abuse claims. Sheriff’s deputies had taken the children out of school, court records show, and brought them to the basement room, with its table, chairs, one-way mirror, and recording equipment. One by one, the children faced Agent Mark Black of the Department of Criminal Investigations and a partner. The children were each alone, without an adult present on their behalf.

While being questioned by the agents, the children became fearful and wept, according to someone familiar with the case who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. The youngsters were apparently not told they were being recorded. While left alone for a time, one explored the room, discovered the camera equipment behind a peephole, and began to cry. 

The DCI video of the interrogation is now a court document. In a four-minute excerpt that can be seen on YouTube, the agents are taking a break. They’re off-camera, apparently unaware that the microphone is still picking up their voices as they plan their strategy. One agent says the children “have been f---ing with us.” The men talk about questioning the therapist to whom the children described the sexual assaults. Agent Black says, “I guarantee we put [her] in here. Put the f---ing hot screws in her. Bitch you’re in f---ing deep shit. You better start talking.” Later Black says, “At least we f--- with Brandon.”

Brandon Taliaferro was the deputy state’s attorney who brought charges against the adoptive parents in 2010, following a police investigation of the children’s abuse allegations. The charges included nearly three dozen felonies, including rape, sexual exploitation and cruelty occurring over a decade. Shirley Schwab, the children’s court-appointed special advocate, supported Taliaferro’s action. Local news media followed the case avidly as it developed.

Since the interrogation, Agent Black has testified multiple times that he was trying to get the children to recant their abuse claims and to say that Taliaferro and Schwab had encouraged them to lie about the abuse, but the youngsters never did. Nevertheless, the state moved on the two whistleblowers, raiding their homes and offices and hitting them with felony and misdemeanor charges related to persuading the children to lie. Later testimony would indicate that investigators had turned up no evidence of this.

In May 2012, Michael Moore, the state’s attorney prosecuting the case against the adoptive parents, dismissed all charges against the mother. The state returned the children to her and gave the father a deal. He admitted to one count of raping a child younger than 10 and was ordered to serve 15 years in prison. He will reportedly be eligible for parole after seven and one half years.

Frank LaMere (shown right) is a prominent Indian-child-welfare advocate and head of Four Directions Community Center, a Native nonprofit in Sioux City, Iowa. He called for a federal investigation into South Dakota’s foster care system and predicted that this latest situation may become South Dakota’s Penn State. “This is a scandal of the highest order,” said LaMere.

A very bad year

Late 2011 was a difficult time for South Dakota’s foster care system. In addition to facing this latest abuse case, the state was figuring out a financial settlement in the so-called Jane Doe lawsuit. It had been brought on behalf of a 9-year-old foster child who was reportedly sexually abused over a period of two years in a group home. Schwab was one of the whistleblowers for that case as well, she said.

Then, days before Black’s interrogation of the Native children and the searches of Taliaferro’s and Schwab’s premises, National Public Radio broadcast a scathing report, charging South Dakota with rampant taking of American Indian children into foster care. The network said the state receives $100 million dollars annually in federal funds on behalf of foster children of all races, giving it an incentive to keep the numbers of children in care high. Alarmed, six House members had asked the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to look into possible violations of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, intended to keep Native children within their Indian families and communities.

Last month, things got even worse for South Dakota. A tribal report (cover shown left) accused the state of “willfully” and “systematically” violating the Indian Child Welfare Act and taking Indian children “at least partly to bring federal dollars into the state.” The document came from a committee of ICWA directors of South Dakota tribes (shown below). They are tribal child-welfare officials tasked with enforcement of the act.

On December 7, Congressmen Ed Markey (D.-MA) and Ben Ray Lujan (D.-NM) reacted to the tribal report by sending a strongly worded letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Markey is the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian affairs, and Luhan is ranking member of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native affairs. Citing the tribal report, the congressmen called for a House investigation of South Dakota for  possible “misappropriation of federal dollars to state coffers.”

“This has gone on long enough,” said Markey. He and Lujan also reminded the Bureau of Indian Affairs that 14 months ago House members asked the agency to hold a “summit” on the situation. Congressman Tom Cole (R.-OK) and three others had gone even further.  In a move reminiscent of Robert Kennedy sending federal marshals to enforce civil rights in Mississippi in 1962, they proposed in late 2011 sending federal attorneys to South Dakota tribes to help them enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act. At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs announced it was looking into these suggestions, but took no action.

The bureau has been closely following events in South Dakota, said spokeswoman Nedra Darling. “The BIA supports the ongoing tribal efforts to resolve this matter, and we stand ready to participate in future forums.”

South Dakota is not the only state that removes Native American children from their families and tribes in disproportionate numbers, but its numbers are among the most skewed, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. The federal dollars South Dakota receives on behalf of all children—Native and non-Native—are considerable. They flow onward to state agencies, foster and adoptive parents, and group homes, as well as to any employees and suppliers. This movement of money has “a measurable effect” on a state’s economy, according to the healthcare consumer group Families USA.

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Kristin Kellar said the agency complies fully with the Indian Child Welfare Act and does not take children to attract federal dollars. Removing a child from the home harms society economically, she said, no matter what “paltry amount of funding the federal government expends to support foster care.” She challenged NPR’s $100-million figure, saying the agency would like to see the numbers on which it is based.

Attorney Daniel Sheehan, general counsel of the Lakota People’s Law Project, an advocacy group, disputed the “paltry” characterization and noted the importance of federal funding to South Dakota. An analysis from the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, reveals that South Dakota is third in the nation for dependence on the federal government, with 45.6 percent of its total expenditures covered by the federal subsidies.

Sheehan pointed to the state’s 2012 budget, which reveals that Washington’s share of South Dakota social services skews even higher, to about two-thirds of the total—$660 million in federal funding, out of the $1 billion in total state spending on all social services. That means Native foster children, who are more than half of all kids in care in the state, could be responsible for significant portions of several federal funding streams, according to Sheehan.

“They would bring the state chunks of the $30 million in federal money for child protective services; the $67 million for nutrition, health, and other economic assistance; the $37 million for behavioral health; and the $19 million for Department of Social Services administrative costs,” said Sheehan. “We could be looking at substantial federal funding captured by Native children once they are in the custody of a state that relies heavily on it.”

Orders from above

As the most recent South Dakota child-abuse case unfolded, top state officials appear to have been closely involved. While raiding Schwab’s premises and seizing computers and other items, DCI Agent Black told Schawb that his orders came from the highest echelons of state government.

“The attorney general himself has told me to work on this until I am done with it,” Black can be heard saying in an audiotape he made, which has now been turned over to the courts. “This is my priority case right now. Short of a homicide happening.”

Along the way, Taliaferro lost his job as deputy state’s attorney. His former boss told local media multiple times that the firing was done “with the support of the attorney general.”

The South Dakota attorney general’s office referred a request for a comment to the Department of Social Services. 

The head of that agency was apparently directly involved as well. In a preliminary hearing for Taliaferro and Schwab’s case, the presiding judge interrupted Black’s testimony to ask him a question: “It just popped into my mind. How did you get the kids out of school?” Black responded that the social services department’s director had given permission.

Kellar said the social services agency “cannot comment on specific abuse and neglect cases, due to confidentiality reasons.”

Schwab and Taliaferro say they fear for their safety. Said Schwab: “Knowing Pierre [South Dakota’s capitol] is calling the shots on this is terrifying. We have no one to turn to.” Their trial is set for January 7, 2013.

State’s attorney Moore is also prosecuting the Taliaferro-Schwab case; he said he could not talk about a pending lawsuit, but that the case against the lawyer and child advocate would be made clear in court next month. In addition, Moore insisted that in the parents’ case, the only abuse charge against them that stuck—the single count of rape—is the one that should have. 

Moore conceded that Black and his fellow officers were “unprofessional” during the break in questioning. However, Moore said, they had behaved differently during the questioning itself: “The interviews weren’t in any way consistent with what was on camera. If you’ve been around law enforcement, you know they swear a lot, they make statements they may regret.” Moore also said that children who are being questioned do not need to be accompanied by an attorney or guardian when they are witnesses, not defendants.

O.J. Semans, the former chief public defender for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, took a different view. “Ordinarily, children are interviewed alone when there’s an indication that they were victims of a family member who should not know of the interview. If the interview is to determine whether the children provided false statements, which is a crime, they should have representation.”

Semans went on to say, “And, by the way, any law enforcement officer knows the difference between an interrogation, with tough questioning in an intentionally stressful environment, and an interview, which elicits a narrative. Because children can be easily influenced, the latter more accurately reflects a child’s perception of a situation.”

Sara Rabern, spokeswoman for the Department of Criminal Investigation, said the agency could not comment on an ongoing prosecution. Neither the agency nor Black responded to requests for an interview with him; however, Black has testified that he made the recorded statements attributed to him here. 

Bad outcomes rising

The recent tribal report described another disturbing trend. For the first decade of the 21st century, figures from the federal Administration for Children and Families show a fivefold increase in the percentage of Native foster children in South Dakota whom the system failed. During that period, the percentage of children who were transferred to correctional or mental health facilities, or who died or ran away, soared to 36 percent in 2010 from 6.9 percent in 1999. During the same period, reunifications with family dropped. The percentage of white children leaving under the same circumstances grew much more slowly during those years, from 6.3 percent to 11.4 percent; and the share reunified with their families increased. The tribal report concluded, “Native American foster children are becoming an increasingly important attractor of federal corrections dollars to South Dakota.”

“Our Native children feed the system. They always have,” said LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. He added that tribes share responsibility for the exodus of Native children into care. “Many of our tribal leaders have been lax in protecting our greatest resource—our children.”

The tribal child-welfare officials’ report also confirmed that last year almost all Indian children in state foster care were in non-Native homes and white-run group facilities. That’s despite the availability of Native foster homes, some of which sit empty on reservations, and kinship placements, the directors said.

The Indian Child Welfare Act encourages kinship care, which involves placing children who have been neglected or abused at home with relatives. Tribes favor it, because it preserves the children’s culture and maintains the community. “In our families, there’s always room for one more,” said Terry Yellow Fat, ICWA director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which straddles South and North Dakota. He is co-chair of the committee of ICWA directors that produced the tribal report.

But tribal members have testified at a 2005 hearing before state lawmakers that social workers for the state routinely rebuffed them when they offered to house young relatives who were being taken into care. One Native American woman asked why she was never considered as a candidate to care for her sister’s children.

Another, whose family had not been allowed to keep a cousin’s children, said the state Department of Social Services, which manages this process, was overwhelming to parents, who generally did not understand the often-changing requirements in child-care plans. A DSS representative at the hearing said that these decisions are made, sometimes quickly, to ensure the safety of the child.

Disappearing into the system

Congress passed Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 to stop the massive removals of Indian children that had taken place over the preceding century, first to notoriously violent boarding schools, then to foster care and adoption in white homes and group settings. During the mid-20th century, as many as 35 percent of Native children were taken from tribes nationwide under federal-, state- and church-run programs, according to testimony Congress gathered while considering the legislation. Sheehan called this “the intentional disassembling of Native American communities through the seizure of their children.”

In South Dakota, Native children are often taken for “neglect,” according to Yellow Fat. “The prevailing attitude on the part of the state is that poverty is a crime,” he said.

“A federal law is being flouted—and frankly, it’s happening in courts all over our state,” said Diane Garreau, ICWA director for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, in South Dakota, and a member of the committee that wrote the report.

The result can be devastating for parents and children, according to attorney Brett Lee Shelton. “Frequently, the kids have already undergone a lot of trauma. Then, when things they don’t understand happen to them, it only adds to their pain,” said Shelton, a member of the Oglala Sioux, another South Dakota tribe, and principal of the Colorado law firm Smith Shelton Ragona.

When tribal youngsters are being removed, time is of the essence, according to Garreau: “If we are not watching, if we don’t start hustling as soon as we hear there’s a problem, if we don’t fight for every single child, they’re lost to us forever. Can you imagine how frightened they must be?”

LaMere charged that the Indian children’s terrifying odyssey through the foster care system as it unfolded in the most recent South Dakota abuse case is not an anomaly. “As outrageous as it is, it is the sad reality for Native children in South Dakota and around the country,” said LaMere. “That father will walk free long before these Indian kids begin to think about recovery.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; images courtesy Lakota Peoples Law Project. For the outcome of the prosecution of child-welfare advocates Taliaferro and Schwab, go to my story in Indian Country Today.

Who’s sorry now? Artist Layli Long Soldier deconstructs President Obama’s apology

Published in Indian Country Today in February 2013.

Time-lapse photographs snapped every 10 minutes in Red Cloud Indian School’s Heritage Center, on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, document visitors inscribing messages on an art installation, then three months later painting them over. Writer and artist Layli Long Soldier projected onto the gallery’s white walls three sections of President Obama’s December 2009 apology to the Native people of the United States. For the last quarter of 2012, she offered viewers markers, pastels, paints and brushes and invited them to respond by writing and drawing directly on the walls.

 “Most Native people had never heard of the apology,” said Long Soldier, who is Oglala Lakota and French American and now lives and teaches on the Navajo reservation, where her husband is from. “Its text was folded into a larger piece of legislation that was signed over a weekend. It’s a national apology but has had no public attention.”

Long Soldier, who is an M.F.A. candidate at Bard College, in New York State, wanted to remedy that. She ran by Heritage Center director Peter Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux, Oglala and Sicangu Lakota, the idea of promulgating the apology in a way that would allow people to have their say about it. Strong and Bordeaux offered to host an installation.

The Heritage Center has one of the country’s major collections of fine Native art and crafts—primarily Lakota and drawn from historic and modern periods. Each year, the center welcomes as many as 12,000 art lovers from around the world to exhibits drawn from the 10,000 pieces in its collection.

Visitors—from Pine Ridge and beyond—reacted vividly to Whereas We Respond. They declared, “Give us back the Black Hills.” “We are ready for action.” “Don’t tell us, show us!”

This was Long Soldier’s second appearance at the center. In 2010, she participated in the show Making New Traditions, which commissioned thought-provoking work by Northern Plains artists. Her Dis/con/nect—a stunning red and silver jingle-dance dress, made of metal mesh and coiled cut-outs of Coca-Cola cans and backed up by three large text-covered panels, shown right—dominated the Heritage Center gallery, then went on tour with the other artworks to museums in the region.

Much of Native art—like Long Soldier’s and the other contemporary pieces in Making New Traditions—includes cultural and community references, said curator Strong. That content defines both traditional and modern Native art and gives the entire body of work a sense of continuity and shared concerns, Strong said: “The connection to community may be obvious, or it may be abstract or subtle.” National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman agreed, calling the Heritage Center an institution where you see art that’s quintessentially tied to its surroundings.

A portion of the Obama apology, each section of which begins with “Whereas,” deals with a critical community matter—a century of forced attendance at boarding schools where substandard education, physical punishment, compulsory conversion to Christianity and sexual assault devastated Native individuals, tribes, lifeways, spiritualities and languages nationwide. This made developing Whereas We Respond at Red Cloud Indian School—originally Holy Rosary, an early Catholic boarding school— resonant for Long Soldier. “It was powerful to have Lakota people write on the walls and, at the end of the exhibit, paint them over.”

Long Soldier spoke about her work:

Did Whereas We Respond elicit unexpected reactions?
Right before the 2012 national election, some Republicans interpreted the installation as anti-Obama and patted me on the back for that. I’m a declared Independent and never imagined anyone would think the work was about party politics! On the other hand, a Native mentor criticized me for not being condemning enough. I was hurt, then thought, ‘I’m an artist, not a politician. I’m creating a space for people to respond as they wish.’

Any surprise participants?
Pine Ridge community members who may not speak up in political forums wrote on the walls. It was rewarding to see the project appeal to them. I think it allowed people time to consider their responses and contribute at their leisure—artistically and intellectually. Foreign visitors left their mark as well; one wrote, ‘Free Palestine!’

Tell us about choosing materials for the jingle dance dress shown in 2010.
I’m obsessed with the metal mesh I used for it. As a material, it is both durable and transparent, and I find that paradox interesting. I recently built 21 buffalos out of very fine silver-colored metal mesh for a show that’ll open at the Heritage Center in February. That piece has associated text and is called Buffalo Book.

How do you unite innovation and a traditional-seeming devotion to craft in your pieces?
I take time with my work. Art is a process of learning and discovery. It’s not just about the finished product, but about an exploration the viewer can see or even be a part of.

Your writing and artwork inhabit large spaces, with references to big events and sweeps of history and public participation. How do you accomplish this?
I find that an idea starts small and expands into something much bigger. You can look to our language for the model. In Lakota, for example, He Sapa are two small words. Sapa means “black” of course. He means “mountain” or “horn.” The Black “Hills” were never hills in the Lakota language. They are our sacred mountains, a distinction and rank that I believe is important. This raises questions, such as, what happened in the translation to English? And as a poet, I muse on the imagery of a mountain as a black horn. Through two words and their pairing, through reflecting on their meaning and history, a vast world opens up. 

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House

Published in Indian Country Today in January 2013; the photographs are of Erdrichs Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books.

Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Round House, is a fast-paced mystery that readers will have a hard time putting down until they’ve finished it. In the book, the winner of this year’s National Book Award for fiction, she takes readers back to the fictional reservation world she’s created in several novels over the years.
In the beginning of this new work, Erdrich’s 14th, we learn that a mother has been raped. She returns home dazed, beaten and bloody, her clothes soaked in gasoline. The book’s narrator is her 13-year-old son, Joe, who tries to figure out who is responsible for the crime. Once his life meant riding bikes with friends and watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, known by its fans as simply TNG. “Naturally, we all wanted to be Worf,” Joe tells us in the narrative. “We all wanted to be Klingons. Worf’s solution to any problem was to attack.”
Now Joe goes on the attack, finding and sometimes mistakenly destroying evidence, while learning first-hand about the jurisdictional tangle that makes justice elusive on reservations, turns them into crime magnets, and traps good people in horrific situations. The Round House is timely and provides a perspective—fictionalized, but based in fact—on the Congressional debate about including protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act.
One day, Joe asks his father, a tribal judge, how he can stand doing his job day after day under such legal restrictions. His dad explains how important the work is. “Everything we [tribal judges] do, no matter how trivial, must be crafted keenly. We are trying to build a solid base here for our sovereignty.”
There are numinous moments throughout the book. One night, a crane flaps by Joe’s window. “That evening it cast the image not of itself but of an angel on my wall. I watched this shadow. Through some refraction of brilliance the wings arched up from the slender body. Then the feathers took fire so the creature was consumed by light.”
Erdrich recently agreed to talk to Indian Country Today Media Network about the book, and the honor bestowed upon her in November by the National Book Foundation.

How did you react when you heard that you’d won?
At the awards dinner in New York City, I can remember hearing the words, “The Round House,” then I blanked out. For a while, I jumped around like a child and hugged people. Somehow I got up to the stage. I was too superstitious to have written an acceptance speech, but I did have one phrase I wanted to use—something about the grace and endurance of Native women, because this award is for my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, aunts and daughters.

Did you do anything special to celebrate?
After I returned to Minneapolis, my husband and friends gave me a surprise party at my bookstore, Birchbark Books, and I was surprised and very moved. Again, I jumped around, hugging people. I am so glad this was the book that was recognized.

For non-Native people, the injustice and jurisdictional tangles described in The Round House will come as astonishing news. How do Native people—for whom these are daily realities—react?
I have had heartbreaking and inspiring responses. One was a letter from a tribal judge, who wrote that she has worked all her life on issues of sovereignty that result in desperately unfair, unworkable, unlivable outcomes for victims of sexual violence—the women and their families. She said she was astounded to read about this in a novel, and it meant a great deal to her to be understood in that manner. I felt the same way about what she said.

Boys and young men are so vivid and touching in your novels. Do you enjoy creating these characters? How do you discover and express their oft-hidden inner lives?
Thank you. For quite a while, I was accused of writing strong women and pathetic men, so this [question] makes me laugh. I don’t choose my characters; they come to me. Joe started talking to me, telling this story. Of course, I went crazy with frustration for year or so— gathering information, studying, writing throwaway stuff, waiting for Joe to talk more. The secret to writing is to make it look easy. It isn’t. Or maybe the secret for this book was becoming a TNG geek. 

As I report articles in Indian country, I occasionally hear Native converts to Christianity refer to traditional spirituality as “devil worship”—just a few weeks ago, in fact. Will indigenous people recover from the long-term assault on their spirituality that you describe in The Round House?
Fundamentalism in any religion misses the point of communicating with the unknowable power that creates and destroys. We small humans have only two great things about us— not our weapons, not our puny rituals, not our awesome ability to emit CO2—but our abilities to think toward wisdom and to express love.
The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 has been in effect for over 30 years, and there has been a powerful resurgence of traditional religious life in Indian country. I imagine these beautiful redemptive actions could threaten some people, but I don’t understand how. Native religion will continue, and it will strengthen. It is about the bonds of healing between people, and nobody can stop that now.

We learn in the book that Joe grows up, gets married and becomes a tribal judge, like his dad. How should readers imagine his journey from the sadness and harm experienced in The Round House to that empowered place?
Generations of Native people have done everything possible to heal, and it would be unworthy of them not to acknowledge that this is the main necessity. But as a writer who is bound to the truth, I also write about those who do not heal. Not everyone can. But those like Joe, who heal and come back to tell their stories, heal others.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.

Spiritual Listening: Alaska Natives Tackle Youth Suicide with Lessons from the Land

Published in Indian Country Today in January 2013.

Some years ago, Yup’ik mentor Keggulluk was setting up a camp in northern Alaska with the help of an at-risk teen he’d taken under his wing. The youngster had been abusing alcohol and gas huffing—inhaling gasoline fumes, which induces hallucinations and causes brain damage and even death. The teen was on track to become one of the many Alaska Natives who kill themselves each year, at a rate at least three times the national average—in some areas, far higher than that.

“The problem has exploded so recently and appears to be still growing, with no end in sight,” said Keggulluk, who is also known as Earl Polk. “It’s a grueling, non-stop battle to save our youth.”

As a result of all the suicide-risk factors bearing down on their children, area tribes had put together a suicide-prevention camp. For several days, the kids would live in the wilderness and benefit from its lessons.

It was a cool, clear September morning when the teen and Keggulluk (pronounced kuth-look) began to put up tents and haul wood and water to prepare for the arrival of the 15 other campers. Suddenly, an enraged bull moose appeared and charged Keggulluk. The youngster took aim with a hunting rifle. “Don’t miss!” Keggulluk exhorted.

The teen fired and brought down the moose. Not only did he rescue Keggulluk, but the shock of simultaneously killing his first moose, provisioning his community in the manner of his ancestors and saving a man’s life put the young man on the road to recovery from his addictions. “It was a spiritual moment, an honorable moment,” explains Keggulluk. “As the young man took care of the dying animal in our way, pouring water from his own mouth into the moose’s, the animal breathed his last breath, and the young man felt it go through him. It was a blessing.”

Later, the youngster challenged Keggullukk: “I thought you were going to lecture me on gas huffing.”
“I will,” Keggulluk recalled telling the teen, “but first we had to take care of some other things.”
That young man was lucky. Others aren’t. For Alaska Native males aged 15 to 24, the suicide rate is 12 times that for other Americans, making it the highest of any population group in the nation, according to the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.

In recent years, Keggulluk and Maniilaq Association wellness coordinator Evon Peter, Gwich’in, have offered suicide-prevention camps through Maniilaq, which represents tribes north of the Bering Strait, and Kawerak Association, with represents tribes grouped around the Strait. The events offer four to five days of songs, dances, traditional games and storytelling, outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, and lots of laughter. “These interactions are about being ourselves in unguarded moments, not as we’ve been told to be by outsiders,” said Peter.

Often, what’s taught isn’t obvious. “The real lesson is often not what we adults say, but rather how we are—how we interact, solve problems, and so on,” said Peter.

In addition to running the camps, which are supported by the Indian Health Service’s Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative, Peter and Keggulluk collaborate on school programs for the early grades through high school. Both also work for indigenous-culture consulting group Gwanzhii, where Peter is chief executive.

The youngsters referred to the Maniilaq and Kawerak camps may have abused alcohol or drugs, experienced domestic violence or neglect, been a bullying perpetrator or victim, or suffer from fetal alcohol effects, according to Peter. “We aren’t told why a youth is referred to us, though it often comes out in the safe space the camp affords. The children feel honored and protected, they build peer networks, and they come to see the adults as mentors.” After three or four days, he said, even the tough ones open up.

The camps can do only so much to abate the high Alaska Native suicide rate, though, Peter cautioned. A youngster may return to a difficult home situation, and the risk rises again.

Understanding suicide
Suicide is what scholar Lisa Wexler called “an unruly phenomenon.” An individual decision impacted by many factors, it’s more difficult to predict and prevent than other public-health issues, said Wexler. A professor at the University of Massachusetts Center for Research on Families, she has worked with communities in Alaska since 2000, focusing on suicide and suicide prevention.

“My research is not about, but with, the people. It’s intended to start a conversation and bring awareness,” said Wexler. For the last three years, she and Peter have worked together to offer communities suicide-awareness training tailored to their needs.

One obstacle to understanding Native suicide in Alaska is the large variation among communities, said Peter. “Although Alaska Native people have high suicide rates overall, several large tribal groups in the state have rates lower than the U.S. average. We also have villages with very high numbers—an annual average of 12 individuals out of a few hundred taking their own lives, for example—next to villages with one suicide in decades.” That means there are no cookie-cutter solutions, he said. “When we go to a village, we ask how we can help.”

More research will help explain the differences among villages, Peter said. Recent studies in the United States and Canada show that indigenous communities with strong traditions and active involvement in sovereignty issues experience less suicide. Wexler is also looking into historical events that may lie behind Alaska’s suicide clusters. “An epidemic may have wiped out one village’s elders at some point,” she postulated. “In another village, an abusive priest may have devastated many children.”

Some things are known, thanks to Maniilaq’s many years of suicide data and Wexler’s existing studies. In an analysis of hospital visits, she found that 40 percent of males who killed themselves had been treated for an alcohol-related injury in the year prior to the suicide. “Forty percent is statistically very significant,” said Wexler. “So, we were able to share with the communities that if anyone shows up for such treatment, health-care workers can talk to them about suicide.”

The data also shows that Alaska Native suicide occurs primarily among 15-24–year-olds. It’s also a recent phenomenon—unknown until the 1960s, said Wexler. By that time, mandatory-schooling regulations had forced the region’s traditionally nomadic people into sedentary villages.

That altered lifeways and social structure, Wexler said. “For the first time, a sizeable number of young people were living together and were no longer an integral part of their family’s survival. Simultaneously, media and external influences grew.” Unemployment and lots of empty time for many people exacerbated the difficulties of adjusting to the new life.

Men and boys
Boys and young men have typically had a harder time coping with the modern Arctic than girls and young women, Wexler said. “Girls and women have generally been able to integrate traditional and contemporary roles. They know they’re valued for caring for siblings and elders and for having children of their own, as well as for doing well in school.” Boys, on the other hand, often can’t afford to hunt, the activity that still defines manhood in the region. “It takes cash to hunt, for the snowmobile or boat, and for the gasoline to run them,” said Wexler.

For many men, their activities as providers have shifted dramatically, confirmed Keggulluk, a virtuosic hunter in the traditional manner. They have to hold down jobs, rather than hunt caribou, moose and seals. “This is not about to come back.”

That, in turn, means one of the critical lessons of the Arctic is hard to come by. Keggulluk recalled that his grandfather once told him, “Those who don’t listen die young.” In the unforgiving North of old, a hunter stayed alive from moment to moment by listening to elders, fellow hunters, the natural world and his own instincts. He was exquisitely sensitive to subtle clues that made the difference between a successful hunt and losing his life under the ice or in an avalanche, between sustenance and death.

“In addition to the practical component, there’s a metaphysical one—spiritual listening,” Keggulluk said. “This is a huge part of what’s missing today for our young people.”

Today’s world distracts youngsters from the land’s messages and from who they are, he explained. “The onslaught of outside information fights with what’s running in their veins. The contrast between life on the tundra and elsewhere is staggering. When our young people go away to school, they find new models for success and learn things that are not relevant at home. This can cause raging conflict.”

That, according to Keggulluk, is where the suicide-prevention camps and their deep listening come in. It may be the first time in some participants’ lives that they can talk to an adult who listens compassionately and nonjudgmentally, Peter said. “We teachers can find ourselves sitting on the beach for hours, listening to a kid talk about intense things. Then the healing can begin.”

Breathing Lessons 
In We Breathe Again, a movie in production about Alaska Native suicide-prevention work, a man talks about his suicide attempt. “I wanted to hunt. I wanted to put food aside, but I couldn’t do it without a vehicle and gas money.” He began drinking and finally turned a gun on himself. The last thing he remembers saying to his family before the gun went off was, “By god, I love you all.”

The people in the film were courageous, willing to talk about moments of anguish as well as triumph, so that others can learn from their experiences, said director and cinematographer Marsh Chamberlain, shown below with executive producer Evon Peter and featured interviewee Keggulluk. “Listening to them has been such a privilege. We Breathe Again is about serious issues, but it’s also uplifting—a healing journey. Whatever our characters have been through, they’re all living healthy lives now, so that hasn’t been hard to do.”
Native American Public Television is funding the movie, now in the editing phase. A trailer can be seen on Vimeo (vimeo.com/46032413). According to Evon Peter, who is Gwich’in, the film shows both what drives a person to suicide and the healing work Alaska Native people are doing.

New Hampshire-raised Chamberlain first got to know the Arctic in 2006, after an aunt married into the Inupiat tribe. “Conversations with an Inupiat cousin changed my life,” Chamberlain recalled. “Nathan Nagaruk shared his joys and despairs. As we dug deeper, he told me of friends lost to suicide and the effect on individuals and communities. I had no idea this was such an issue for Native people.”

The two young men decided to make a difference and began creating a movie in 2007, with Nagaruk a producer. In 2010, Peter came on board to consult and offer links to more communities.

Alaska’s glorious terrain, with its wintery mountains and glaciers and vast grassy plains in summer, surrounds the five primary interviewees as they affirm the vital connections to land, culture and community that mean surviving—and thriving—in the new Arctic. They hunt, they pick berries, they sing and share and laugh.

Final versions will include a 1½-hour theatrical release, to be screened in January 2014, a 56-minute public-television version ready for broadcast in May 2014 and an even shorter version for school showings. “We’ll submit We Breathe Again to Sundance, Tribeca and other major film festivals,” said Peter. “And we’re looking for a grant to make DVDs, so we can distribute them to schools and communities.”

Said Keggulluk, who is Yup’ik: “I told Marsh he had to document our austere way of life, and to do so in real time. I get calls all the time. A week ago, there was yet another suicide, and yesterday I lost a nephew. It’s so hard, so intense, like a powerful undercurrent that can draw a person under at any moment.”

Keggulluk compared the ongoing transformations—real and filmic—to ever-changing Arctic snowdrifts: “As lives shift, the movie shifts.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Marsh Chamberlain, used with permission.

Tribes take on youth suicide with skits, mustangs and ceremonies

Published in Indian Country Today in January 2013.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, youngsters perform skits aimed at lowering their tribe’s youth-suicide rate. Playing with mustangs helps prevent self-harm among the children of the Gila River Indian Community. On the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, tribal members who’ve lost family to suicide heal by grieving together. In each of these three communities, youngsters kill themselves at a rate at least triple the United States average.

“American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest suicide rates in the country,” said Richard McKeon, chief of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s suicide-prevention branch. To help quell this epidemic, Native groups received about a third of the agency’s recent round of grants. “We want to help as many as tribes as possible reduce risk factors, such as substance abuse and depression.”

With the grants, the tribes will also bolster what scientists call protective factors. “For Native people, that means connecting with culture, an extremely important asset, as well as family and community,” said McKeon.

Throughout Indian Country, even very young children are included in prevention events and activities. “On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we can start talking about suicide when kids are in pre-school,” said Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory, staffer for the Sweetgrass Project, a tribal suicide prevention program.

How do you broach such a subject with a five-year-old? “Our kindergarteners can tell you about how daddy hung himself,” DeCory responded. “They go to wakes and funerals. Suicide has become ‘normal’ to them.” So, she and other mentors on Pine Ridge face the crisis square on, with frank words and compassion.

DeCory’s description of the work at Pine Ridge could describe many tribes’ efforts: “We have to end the silence and walk out of the darkness together.” Here are ways tribes are helping their kids feel connected and valued.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: Healing together
“Forever is a long, long time / So I will forever remember you.” The sweet refrain floated over a November grieving ceremony on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. About 75 people had gathered for a meal and remembrance in a meeting room of the tribe’s hotel in Mobridge, South Dakota. Youth suicide at Standing Rock has been marked by not just high rates, but devastating clusters of deaths. Seven youngsters in one tiny community killed themselves in six weeks in 2009. Some clusters have been even higher, and others have been included dozens of attempts, in addition to the deaths.

The singer at the gathering composed the plaint for relatives lost to suicide—a son, a nephew, a niece, cousins and uncles, deaths stretching back to the 1970s, she said. Veronica Iron Thunder, shown above at left, who survived her own suicide attempts, sang a traditional Lakota song intended to restore damaged spirits.

A third woman said she was finally able to accept her son’s death by suicide—though she said, as do many survivors, that she still couldn’t understand why it had happened. “After 15 years of mourning, I took flowers to his grave and said, ‘goodbye, son.’”

“That was so important for others to hear,” said tribal wellness program director Arleata Snell. Some Standing Rock families have been overwhelmed by grief for years, unable to move on, she said. “Now, maybe they’ll see it is possible to heal.”

In a slideshow, the beautiful, smiling faces of those lost to suicide slipped across the screen. Almost all were in their teens and twenties. They radiated hope. But they were also heartbreaking. A small indigenous community had lost so many of those who should be leading it into the future.

“We’re in this together, from prevention to healing,” said Snell. “We’ve trained youth how to recognize and report signs of suicide in their peers, and adults know the suicide-prevention protocol ASIST. Schools, health service, spiritual people—everyone here is helping stop youth suicide.”

These days, Standing Rock is experiencing an uneasy calm, with generally lower numbers, said Snell. “If people are in crisis, they know who to call, whether it’s our program or the national hotline—1-800-SAFE-TALK.” She also worked with the national call center to route calls from Standing Rock to a local counselor. Normally, Snell said, callers from across the nation get a professional counselor who may be anywhere in the country. But now, Standing Rock callers get a local person who understands how hard it is for people to get themselves to help on big reservations, with their long distances, great poverty and little access to transport.

Snell and her staff of four are the wellness program’s eyes and ears in Standing Rock’s scattered communities. They respond immediately to suicide ideations (plans) or attempts, contacting parents if minors are involved and arranging transport to counseling or an emergency room.

Ira Taken Alive, chair of the Standing Rock Sioux Suicide Task Force called his tribe’s response to youth suicide “all hands on deck.” The task force meets monthly. Members have discussed the little-understood fact that suicides occur mostly in spring or fall. “It may be seasonal affective disorder and a response to changing amounts of sunlight, though no one really knows,” said Taken Alive.

They’ve talked about substance abuse. “One thing is sure,” Taken Alive said. “In 98 percent of attempts and completions here, alcohol or drugs were involved. We need to get ahead of the substance-abuse issue, to be proactive, not reactive.”

The grieving families ate together, then entertainer and motivational speaker Mylo Redwater Smith, shown above at left and below, closed the event. A 25-year-old Dakota from Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, he lightened the atmosphere with jokes and skits. Then he launched into a fast-moving analysis of how generations of attempts to assimilate tribal people have meant loss upon loss—of homeland, language, cultural practices, the ability to support their families, good health and more. As a result, Natives have taken up destructive behaviors—suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, drug use and other dysfunctions—and made them their “new normal,” Smith said.

“All the negative things add up for our children,” Smith said. “They say to themselves, ‘I’m alone. It’s too hard.’ They may give up.” To help youngsters overcome what he called the “reservation mentality,” they have to connect with their culture, according to Smith. “Take them to the sweat. Teach them to pray. In ceremony, I found who I was as a young Dakota man. That saved my life.”

Smith was optimistic. “It’s hard to be Indian,” he said. “But we as a people are defining our problems and looking for solutions. This is a time of healing.”

Gerald Iron Shield closed the day with a prayer and traditional Lakota song. “We can become strong again,” he said.

Gila River Indian Community: Mustang sallies
Herds of wild horses still roam free in the Gila River Indian Community’s stretch of the Sonoran Desert, south of Phoenix, Arizona. Mustangs are also important to a tribal youth suicide-prevention and life-skills program, Kahv’Yoo (“horse”) Spirit, run by horseman Andy Miritello, with therapist Shawn Rodrigues.

The kids don’t hop aboard wild animals and try to ride them, cautioned Miritello. The program uses a ground-based method, EAGALA (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning), developed by the international nonprofit of the same name. Everything happens on the ground, with kids on foot, grooming and interacting with the animals, which include domesticated horses. This eliminates the issues of power and control over the animal that are essential to riding a horse, said Miritello.

Instead, people and animals are equals in a friendly, low-key herd sharing a corral. This was apparent to Gila River youth, who used human imagery to describe the horses. “They show emotions like people do,” said teen participant Jacquelyn Osife.

Mustangs bring a special element to the mix. “They’re more alert and sensitive than domesticated horses,” Miritello said. “They have to be to survive. It’s literally in a mustang’s DNA. They also project a powerful sense of life that inspires the children, who are from a horse culture.”

Some lessons involve observing the animals’ responses and figuring out if they relate to other aspects of your life, said Julie Jimenez, prevention administrator for the behavioral health department. “A child might observe, ‘that horse just walked away from me,’ then reveal that kids at school do the same thing. The therapist might ask, ‘How did you approach the horse (or the kids)?’ A conversation will develop from there.”

Handling a big animal is empowering, said Miritello. He described a girl who became increasingly confident as she haltered a horse and led it around the arena with a rope. For the next step, she removed the rope and circled the corral, with the horse following freely, like an oversized friendly dog. “She was thrilled,” he recalled.

The children’s achievements give them optimism and help them stay away from life-threatening behaviors, including drugs, alcohol and self-harm, according to Miritello. “They connect to self, peers, community and culture,” he said. Teachers have reported better school attendance and behavior among program participants.

All tribal youth aged 5 to 24 are eligible to participate in the once-a-week, 8-week sessions, which can be repeated. Kahv’Yoo Spirit is among several Gila River suicide-prevention initiatives supported by state funding and the National Indian Health Board, said Jimenez. These include a summer culture camp and a coalition of providers and community members who get the prevention message out with block parties, a skateboarding competition and other events. Meanwhile, 400 adults have learned a protocol for recognizing and reporting signs of suicide.

Teen Kahv’Yoo Spirit participant Rodrigo Castellon said working with horses was transforming. “You see the world with different, more positive eyes.”
Oglala Sioux Tribe: Serious fun
Night had fallen, and 32 teens living in Pine Ridge High School’s dorm, in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, were seated around small tables in a common room. Each group was quietly discussing things that could happen to a person—learning a friend has been abused, coming home from school to find auntie drunk, flunking a test, getting ketchup on a prom dress. They ranked them from least to most serious. 

This was one of the problem-solving lessons the teens will complete under the American Indian Life Skills Development curriculum, a suicide-prevention syllabus for Native youth. Charismatic, high-energy Tiny DeCory, shown above, teaches the lessons through the tribe’s Sweetgrass Project, run by Lisa Schrader-Dillon. The program just received its second Garrett Lee Smith three-year grant. In the curriculum’s original incarnation—as Zuni Life Skills Development—it eliminated youth suicide at the pueblo for the 15 years it was in effect. It’s on SAMHSA’s list of evidence-based (scientifically tested) practices.

As the Pine Ridge teens ranked each list, they announced their results. Generally the groups agreed among each other, until four boys declared facial blemishes to be life’s greatest disaster, to shrieks of laughter from the other kids.

“The issues are serious, but the way Tiny presents the material, the students don’t think of it as a ‘curriculum’,” said dorm manager Allie Bad Heart Bull, shown left. Bad Heart Bull radiates quiet capability and offers meditation and other alternative healing practices to dorm residents.

“We’ve seen changes in behavior already,” said DeCory. “In the lessons, the teens have talked about solutions to all kinds of problems. They’ve become more communicative and seem stronger and happier.” Children on Pine Ridge have the capacity for great resilience, she said. “We’re working to make this their turnaround moment.” 

The next day, DeCory’s youth theater group, B.E.A.R., performed for a packed crowd at another reservation high school, shown below. B.E.A.R is also under the Sweetgrass umbrella; the initials stand for Be Excited About Reading, while the name refers to cultural beliefs about bears’ wisdom and strength. The group hands out books and encourages literacy at its approximately four monthly shows on and off the reservation.

“We started out to improve test scores,” said DeCory. It soon became apparent that B.E.A.R.’s youth audiences also wanted information about serious issues they face. The group’s kid-developed skits don’t pull any punches. They deal with teen pregnancy, coping with alcoholic relatives, suicide and other problems youngsters in their audiences face. They provide information on where to go for help.

For its members, B.E.A.R. provides the all-important, life-saving sense of connection. After Erin Miller’s mom saw her perform, the two bonded powerfully. “We cried together,” said Erin, who’s 18. Shawn Keith, 23, has been with B.E.A.R. since he was a young teen. “It means everything to me,” he said.

Stephanie Woodard wrote this story, the second in a series on preventing Native youth suicide, with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism (fij.org) and The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships (reportingonhealth.org), a program of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. For the first story in the series, go here. c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.