Funding Gaps Leave Native Teens at Risk

South Dakota's Oglala Sioux will lose vital federal funding for a suicide prevention program in December.
Student mentors from the Bear Program stand with Director Yvonne "Tiny" DeCory after a performance at the Lakota Nation Invitational. (Photo: Christina Rose/Facebook)
Nov 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

In the suicide epidemic gripping tribal communities nationwide, South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Sioux, is ground zero. In 2015, twenty people have taken their lives, according to The Associated Press—many of them adolescents. Now, the reservation’s only suicide prevention program—called Sweetgrass—will run out of federal funding at the end of December, after the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration denied the reservation’s application for a new five-year grant.

“It’s unconscionable that in the middle of a crisis, the tribe just doesn’t get the funding,” said Erin Bailey, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Native American Youth, a policy program focused on youth suicide prevention. “A three- or four-year grant to address centuries of historical trauma and underfunding is sort of laughable.”

Federal officials from SAMHSA reviewed the reservation’s application for $3.6 million in funding poorly and rejected it, though the agency gave tribal officials a chance to resubmit an amended version, according to the AP. But the letter rejecting the application was apparently lost in the shuffle, and the reservation missed its deadline to reapply.

The funds have been used to support teens at risk for suicide and their families by helping them access mental health services, operating a suicide prevention hotline, and offering educational programs to increase awareness of the problem at local schools.

DeCory. (Photo: Facebook)

“We just buried one this morning, an 18-year-old tribal member,” Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory told Sioux Falls–based Keloland News on Friday. “We had another [suicide] a few weeks ago.”

DeCory is a suicide prevention worker who runs the Bear Cave, a youth center for kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is in the southwest corner of the state. High rates of poverty and unemployment on the reservation make life a challenge for the kids and their families, DeCory told South Dakota Public Radio.

“I want the youth to have that feeling of a better tomorrow,” DeCory told SDPR. “But what about the dad or mother who can’t put food on the table? The single parent making $7.35 an hour? We can work with the kids all day long, but if I have to send them back to that same home, it’s not going to change.”

Pine Ridge, home to roughly 18,000 people, is the poorest reservation in the U.S., with a 90 percent unemployment rate and an average household income of under $4,000, according to the True Sioux Hope Foundation. Seventy percent of high school students drop out before graduation.

When it comes to mental health services, Pine Ridge’s lack of resources mirrors that of Native American reservations across the nation, according to Bailey. Sweetgrass, like similar programs around the country, relies on short-term federal funding like the Garrett Lee Smith grant, which offers three to four years of funding.

Without that funding, many tribal communities have just one mental health care provider for the entire reservation, with limited hours and a location that may be inconvenient for the tribal members in remote districts, according to Bailey. Pine Ridge isn’t the first reservation Bailey has seen lose federal funding in the midst of a mental health crisis.

“Tribal communities need to have access to sustainable long-term funding,” she told TakePart. “If you’re the person on the ground running these programs and you’re constantly in crisis mode, it’s very difficult to be thinking about grant renewal. It’s a leadership opportunity for the federal government to help tribes get ready for that.”