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Teen suicide on Indian reservation brings tears of sadness, cry for help

AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. -- Fifteen-year-old Aiyana Englund got up in front of a crowd in the rotunda of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal headquarters this past summer and talked about respect.

AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. -- Fifteen-year-old Aiyana Englund got up in front of a crowd in the rotunda of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal headquarters this past summer and talked about respect.

The Dakota word is “ohoda” and it’s one of the Sioux Indian cultural values.

Apparently, though, her words and thoughts were not enough.

Earlier this month she took her life -- a victim of bullying, those who knew her say.

Just two weeks later another tribal member -- a 13-year-old girl -- also committed suicide, another victim of bullying.

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It’s sent shockwaves and brought tears in many circles on the tribe’s Lake Traverse Reservation, a vast area that covers parts of five counties in far northeast South Dakota and two counties in extreme southeast North Dakota.

Although a count of teenage suicides on the reservation wasn’t available, there was one thing that was known for sure -- many more have attempted suicide and failed.

“There are even a lot of those who attempted suicide that haven’t ever been reported,” said tribal youth counselor Teresa White.

“These are somebody’s children -- somebody’s baby, “ said White, who came back to the reservation “to help my people” and admits she cries some days, too, with what she sees happening.

“I see these children’s faces, the tears, the pain, their parents begging for help,” White said.

White and tribal secretary Crystal Owen fear for the future, too, as there has been concerns about possible suicide pacts among friends of the girls and others.

White, who works at the Dakota Pride Treatment Center in Agency Village and is one of only two youth counselors, said she has had nine teenagers come into her office in the past few weeks contemplating killing themselves, too.

For some it’s guilt -- saying they should have been the ones who died. Others wanting to join their friends who died.

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There’s been parents, too, pleading with White to talk to their children.

White, a gregarious, easygoing counselor well-liked in the community and devoted to helping “the kids,” said her door is never closed and the teens who are having serious troubles and contemplating suicide don’t need an appointment with her. She’ll delay other duties to help immediately.

As for Owen, she has a personal stake in this battle to help.

Aiyana was her granddaughter and the grieving grandmother wants to speak out about the issue.


Two spirits

Both White and Owen have no doubt that bullying at the girls’ schools played a major role in their suicides. The battle with depression and emotional turmoil also contributed.

However, friends of Aiyana who have visited with White and Owen left no doubt that they believe that bullying was the main factor.

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Owen knows at least part of the reason why Aiyana was bullied. She was “gender fluid” or living with two spirits in the Indian world -- split between male and female feelings.

She would dress like a girl one day, a boy the next. She would be Aiyana, then want to be addressed as Adrian.

Owen would pick her up almost every day as Aiyana was the babysitter to Owen’s 8-year-old adopted son and would often ask “who she was today.”

Owen respected, understood and accepted Aiyana. So did Owen’s 8-year-old son, who cries himself to sleep some nights, has nightmares and misses his babysitter. He wouldn’t go to her wake or funeral because he wanted to “remember her like she was.”

Owen’s 90-year-old mother even had come to the point of accepting her great-granddaughter as she was.

However, some others at Sisseton High School where she was a freshman apparently didn’t.

Owen struggles with what she could have done, but said she thinks maybe Aiyana’s life had just become too painful.

“You can’t follow them around 24/7. I would ask her if she was OK, and she would say ‘yah,’ but something was wrong,” Owen said.

“I want her story told, though, for others who are bullied. We need to learn to accept people for who they are.”

Doing what they can

White wishes there were more counselors available at the tribe’s treatment center as well as emergency mental health beds available where teenagers can get immediate help.

In the meantime, White is doing what she can with those who are seeking help at her office, including how to handle bullies.

She has at least a three-pronged approach she takes in talking with teen girls -- sometimes using the language of teenagers.

No. 1:  White tries to help the teenager realize why they are being bullied.  She said if a girl is walking down the hallway at school or the street with some purple hair, dressing differently or acting a little crazy -- maybe the bully has an interest in her, perhaps out of jealousy or envy.

No. 2:  White calls it an “Oprah thing” because she first heard it on Oprah Winfrey’s show. An example of this is if a group of girls say to a girl “oh, she thinks she’s all that.”  

“Well, maybe the girl is all that,” White said. At least she can think that way.

No. 3: One day a girl is walking down the street or school hallway and she’s feeling good and in control of their power. “I’m happy and am having a good day.”  Then, the bully yells at her, “Hey, you ….. bitch.”

Well the first reaction, White said, is to fight back and punch them.

However, White says “no way.” Instead, she suggests the girl maybe say or think “Yes, I might just be the best bitch you have ever met.”

Then, walk away and continue to “have yourself a good day.” By taking this approach, the bully doesn’t get the satisfaction they wanted.

In these way, White said she hopes to change the thinking of the girl being bullied. She can handle the situation in a different way and “it does work.”

Other approaches

White knows there are also approaches that can help, such as equine or other pet therapy,

relying on “the Creator” to help through difficult situations, aromatherapy-infusing Indian medicine to help a person find a more beautiful, relaxed place.

The youth counselor said sometimes a person could also be helped by having pity for the bully.

“Maybe something is going on with (the bully). Maybe they are being bullied at home by a sibling or a parent and are taking it out on someone else,” White said.

If the bully, however, isn’t getting any satisfaction or reaction during the bullying -- which nowadays is also done through social media -- it’s not any “fun” for them anymore, white said.

The bottom line is that in many cases the person being bullied will be OK.

The fear of suicide, though, “is for real,” White said.

She’s seen the blood and cuts on the arms of teenagers or the overdose of pills taken and the effort in the emergency room to help.

”This is for real,” she said.

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