NEOPIT, Wis. -- Fifteen years after Schuyler Webster took his own life at age 14, his mother still sees him everywhere.
He’s in her front yard “Schuyler Tree,” planted by his Menominee Tribal School eighth-grade class. He’s in her grandson, also named Schuyler, now nearing 14 himself.
By the time Schuyler ended his own life, his impulsive nature was getting him in trouble at school and home. Unknown to his mother, Evora “Tinker” Fish Webster, the young man had started “huffing” glue and talked to his friends about suicide. When a relative called the police over Schuyler’s glue-sniffing, the panicked teen shot himself.
Less than two weeks after Schuyler’s death on June 11, 1995, his friend Warren Smith across the street in Neopit took his own life, quickly followed by the suicide of fellow Menominee Ruth Tourtillott, family members confirm. In less than three months, three tribal members had died by suicide.
Such a spate of needless deaths may seem unusual, but high rates of suicide have been identified among Native Americans in the United States since the 1970s.
Despite 40 years of insight and ongoing prevention efforts, many native communities still struggle to keep members from taking their own lives. Between 1999 and 2008, at least 86 Native Americans in Wisconsin have died by suicide -- a figure that is likely lower than the actual toll, given that experts believe suicides are sometimes mislabeled as accidental overdoses, shootings and car crashes.
An analysis of Wisconsin suicide data from 1999 to 2008 by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found:
● The overall suicide rate among Native Americans was 16 deaths per 100,000 people -- at least 25 percent higher than Wisconsin’s overall rate of about 12 deaths per 100,000.
● The suicide rate among native people was significantly higher than rates for other ethnic and racial groups -- including about 12 per 100,000 for whites, 9 for Asians, 7 for blacks, and 6 for Hispanics.
● Menominee County, dominated by the Menominee Indian Reservation with a majority Native American population, had the highest suicide rate of any Wisconsin county with nearly 30 deaths per 100,000 -- two times higher than the national rate for non-Hispanic Native Americans.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide death rates among non-Hispanic Native Americans, such as those living in Wisconsin, have remained consistently higher than the general population over the past two decades. (The minority of Native Americans who also identify themselves as Hispanic have low rates of suicide comparable to those of other Hispanics.)
The disparity has drawn high-level attention to the quality of mental health care for Native Americans. In June, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, launched an investigation into the Indian Health Service following a 2009 cluster of 11 suicides on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation straddling North and South Dakota.
Dorgan also sponsored a bill to improve American Indian health care that became part of President Obama’s health care reform agenda. If Congress funds the bill, says Dorgan, “I think we will see almost immediate improvement.”
Higher rates of suicide have long been tied to the alcoholism and drug use, depression and poverty that are prevalent in many Indian communities. Andrea Thundercloud, another Menominee tribal member, and Jonelle Pettibone, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, are friends who have both attempted suicide and turned to drugs to alleviate pain that persists from chaotic and abusive childhoods.
But mental-health providers on Wisconsin reservations cite a deeper and more profound trigger for some suicides: the historical trauma that has disrupted and even destroyed intricate native cultures.
Richard Monette, an associate professor of law at University of Wisconsin and expert in laws involving native people, puts it this way: “They had societies where they had their own norms, their own values, they had customs and traditions ... all of which kept their life in balance with their community, with their individuality, their families. They lost all that, and not voluntarily.”
George Kamps, a psychotherapist who formerly worked with the Oneida tribe, says white-run boarding schools, which some Indian children were forced to attend, played a role in undermining families, stunting emotional development and damaging parenting skills among Native Americans.
At these schools, some of which operated until the 1970s, “punishment was prominent if you didn’t behave, but the nurturing and the loving was absent,” Kamps says.
Dominated by the Menominee Indian Reservation with its thick forests, pristine lakes and the mighty Wolf River, Menominee County and its 4,513 people represent a microcosm of why suicide rates are so high among Native Americans.
Menominee is the poorest county in Wisconsin, and it ranks last in several key health indicators, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Just over half of Menominee County children live in poverty, compared to 15 percent statewide. While single-parent families account for 9 percent of Wisconsin’s households, in Menominee County, it’s 26 percent. The county’s unemployment rate is nearly always the worst in the state; in September, it was 14.5 percent.
Menominee County Sheriff and tribal member Butch Summers believes alcoholism, drug use and lack of opportunity play roles in the county’s high suicide rate. He recalls being called out of a 2008 suicide prevention training session to respond to yet another suicide death.
Amy Zimmer, a drug and alcohol counselor with Menominee County Health and Human Services, estimates that half the people she counsels have thought about or attempted suicide. And more than 2,800 people -- well over half the county population -- seek help from Menominee Tribal Clinic’s mental health program annually, says Jerry Waukau, the clinic’s health administrator.
Shannon Wilber is director of the tribe’s alcohol and drug abuse counseling center called Maehnowesekiyah (mah-no-way-SAY-key-ah) Wellness Center, which means “We will all feel better” in the Menominee language. She says problems persist because depression and mental illness on the reservation are often shrouded in shame and misunderstanding.
For her part, Webster says she had no idea that her son was suicidal.
“He was 14 years old, just going through puberty, different kinds of mood swings and just a lot of fun,” Webster says. “He lived for the day. He was that kind of boy.”
A single parent of six boys, Webster worked two jobs to keep her family afloat. When Schuyler got to be too much to handle, Webster sent him to stay with her oldest son, Chauncey, who lived nearby.
According to Wilber, Schuyler’s living conditions -- drug and alcohol use at a young age, bouncing from home to home -- are common on the Menominee Indian Reservation and in other Native American communities, where children in single-parent households are sometimes left to their own care.
Andrea Thundercloud, now 40, spent a turbulent childhood rotating between the Menominee reservation and the “white man’s world,” leading to a lifelong struggle with suicidal tendencies. She estimates she has tried to take her own life 30 to 40 times. Abuse and alcoholism on the reservation have a corrosive effect on young people, Thundercloud says.
“It (Menominee Reservation) is beautiful land, but my tribal members make it depressing,” she says.
Growing concerns over suicide prompted the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena to add a suicide prevention specialist in February. Darwin Dick, the tribe’s youth development and outreach director, runs another federally funded program, Native Aspirations, which reconnects young Menominee to their culture to reduce violence, bullying and suicide.
"Culture is basically prevention in itself,” Dick says, adding that when students know who they are, “their confidence is higher, their self-esteem is higher -- it creates that sense of belonging.”
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