NEOPIT — 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. He’s even in her dreams.
“When I dream about him now I can see him at every age that he would have been, every four or five years the changes in him. And I think that’s the power of a mother,” says Evora “Tinker” Fish Webster, a lifelong resident of the Menominee Indian Reservation in northeast Wisconsin.
By the time Schuyler ended his own life, his impulsive nature was getting him in trouble at school and home. Unknown to his mother, 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 with keeping 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 the 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 identify themselves as Hispanic have low rates of suicide comparable to those of other Hispanics.)
Between 1999 and 2007, for example, the nationwide suicide rate among non-Hispanic Native Americans was 14 per 100,000, about 25 percent higher than the overall national rate of 11.
The disparity has drawn high-level attention to the quality of mental health care for Native Americans. In March, Coloradas Mangas, a young Chiricahua Apache, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs after six of his friends on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico took their own lives.
“I come from a people whose pride runs deep, but I also understand that sometimes, pride can keep us from asking for help,” said Mangas in his testimony. He said he thwarted a seventh suicide by responding quickly to a friend’s call for help.
In June, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, launched an investigation into the federal 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.
Higher rates of suicide have long been tied to alcoholism and drug use, depression and poverty that are prevalent in many American Indian communities. Schuyler Webster abused drugs and alcohol as his behavior problems worsened. 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 mental 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.”
Menominee highlights suicide risk
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.
The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranks the county last in several key health indicators.
Menominee is Wisconsin’s poorest county. 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 recalls being called out of a 2008 suicide prevention training session — held on the one-year anniversary of a Menominee teenager’s suicide — to respond to yet another suicide death.
“There ain’t that many jobs here on the reservation,” Summers says. “And you got alcoholism and drugs. And they’re turning to that instead of going out and finding jobs off the reservation.”
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 at some point in their lives.
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. He said patients seeking a consultation with the psychiatrist will likely wait five weeks for an appointment at the facility, funded primarily by the Indian Health Service.
The tribe also has an 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. Because of both the tribal and county services, “I think we’re lucky here because I think we have better access to some mental health services than other counties do,” Zimmer says.
But Maehnowesekiyah Director Shannon Wilber, who grew up on the Menominee reservation, says problems persist because depression and mental illness there are often shrouded in shame and misunderstanding.
“Our people aren’t equipped with the tools to be able to identify when a person is at risk for suicide,” Wilber says.
Other Wisconsin reservations have comparable services and accessibility. On the Lac du Flambeau reservation in northwest Wisconsin, for example, patients often wait weeks for a counseling appointment at the tribe’s Family Resource Center, says counselor Denise Wildcat.
Then there is the question of the quality of care. Ken Ninham, a psychotherapist who has worked with several Wisconsin tribes over 30 years, says health-care providers often have trouble breaching the cultural divide to see warning signs. He spoke on the condition that his comments would not represent any particular tribe or tribes.
Ninham recently saw three suicidal Native American patients at Bellin Health in Green Bay. Each had seen multiple health-care providers, none of whom identified the potential for suicide.
“My biggest frustration is people (who) are trained to pick up on these warning signs and are not following through and making the referral and the assessment,” Ninham says.
Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is investigating the quality of mental health care in the Indian Health Service’s region based in Aberdeen, S.D., one of 12 administrative regions. Dorgan says the reservation’s director of mental health position has gone unfilled for over a year.
“That represents, in my judgment, incompetence. The Indian Health Service has a responsibility to fill these positions and make mental health treatment available to people,” Dorgan says. “I think Congress has some responsibility to provide more funding here.”
The Aberdeen district gets the most funding for mental health care from the IHS at $73 per person per year. By comparison, the Bemidji service area, which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, receives about $19 per person, the third lowest per capita spending among the 12 IHS regions.
Thomas Sweeney, a spokesperson for the Indian Health Service, insists the agency is addressing the issue.
“Currently, in partnership with tribes, (we are) developing strategic plans to address suicide and behavioral health for the Indian health system,” Sweeney writes via email.
Witnesses told Dorgan’s committee that only 60 percent of the demand for mental-health services is being met on reservations.
“There’s wide-scale health care rationing going on on Indian reservations,” Dorgan adds. “That includes rationing with respect to mental health which relates directly to the question of suicides.”
‘He lived for the day’
When Schuyler began acting up at home and school, his mother, Tinker Webster, took him for help to Maehnowesekiyah, never thinking the young man who loved drumming and drawing eagles might be suicidal.
“He was 14 years old, just going through puberty, different kinds of mood swings and just a lot of fun,” Webster says of her son, who was proud of his Indian heritage. “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 on the reservation with his wife.
The day before he died, Schuyler was at Chauncey’s home, drinking, smoking marijuana and huffing glue with his youngest brother Bronson. The next morning, Schuyler, high on glue, argued with Bronson over who should mow the lawn.
Chauncey’s wife smelled the glue and after trying to reason with Schuyler, called the police. Schuyler hid in the closet of a locked bedroom. As officers entered the trailer, he shot himself with a hunting rifle.
According to Wilber of Maehnowesekiyah, 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. Single parents are sometimes forced to work two jobs, and children are often left to their own care.
“Day in and day out when a child lives like that … they start getting involved with kids that are currently doing or using drugs and alcohol,” Wilber says. “Alcohol and drugs, once they get past that euphoria, it creates that downer effect. And that brings down their whole world and makes them feel like there’s no reason for living.”
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; her left wrist is marred by a thick constellation of scars.
Thundercloud says the cycle of dysfunction among young people on the reservation is obvious.
“They’re young, they don’t know another way of life and they see their parents being abusive, so they become abusive, and then they are bored, so they drink,” Thundercloud said. “It’s beautiful land, but my tribal members make it depressing.”
Philip A. May, professor of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico, has studied suicide among Indians since the 1960s. He says Schuyler’s story represents a “pretty routine recipe” for Native American youth suicides.
“Because people of those age groups tend to be impulsive, if you mix alcohol or other drugs, people tend to be more impulsive,” he says.
Says Webster: “Two different times, two of (Schuyler’s) friends had told me he had talked about doing that, not shooting himself but killing himself, but I didn’t really put emphasis on it because he seemed like he was okay.”
As a result of Schuyler’s death, Webster fell into a deep depression. The stress of the suicide also inflicted deep wounds on his siblings, she says. His two eldest brothers endured failures in the logging business. His two brothers in high school did not graduate. His youngest brother, now 28, is serving time in an Indiana prison.
Webster, sadly, doesn’t feel that her family’s situation is unique.
“A lot of the Native people have so many crises in their family, they go through one and they don’t heal from that one and you got another one,” Webster says. “They’re one right on top of one another.”
For Native Americans, the term historical trauma describes the takeover of Indian lands by white settlers, relocation to reservations and loss of culture when children were forced to attend white-run boarding schools.
George Kamps, a psychotherapist who formerly worked with the Oneida tribe, says boarding schools in particular worked to undermine families, stunt emotional development and damage parenting skills.
At these schools, he says, “punishment was prominent if you didn’t behave, but the nurturing and the loving was absent.” As a result, Native Americans who attended these schools, some of which operated until the 1970s, “didn’t learn to be gentle, to be nurturing,” Kamps says. “They learned to be disciplinarians because that’s what they were taught.”
Historical trauma leads to dysfunction because it damages the ability of families, schools and the community “to buffer and protect the individual from normal challenges,” May says, “and those challenges tend to be greater in Indian communities.”
Psychotherapist Ninham says drugs and alcohol are too often blamed for problems such as suicide on reservations. He and other experts instead point to the physical, sexual and emotional abuse that they believe has its roots in historical trauma.
“Nobody wants to talk about trauma and abuse, so we talk about drugs and alcohol,” Ninham says.
Zimmer, the alcohol and drug abuse counselor, agrees: “The alcoholism is a symptom of that greater over-arching issue of the historical trauma. It’s a symptom of, it’s not the cause. But people just can’t get out from under it.”
Thundercloud says her first suicidal thoughts at age 12 stemmed from physical abuse and “not feeling loved and cared about” at home. She turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the severe mental pain that anti-depressants failed to soothe.
“This depression just makes you not want to do anything, and you just want to sleep and you feel like … you’re not hurting anybody, (but) actually I am,” Thundercloud says. “I’m hurting myself, because I’m wasting away in my room.”
Jonelle Pettibone, 34, last attempted suicide a year ago following a particularly stressful time in her life, which has been punctuated by physical and emotional abuse from those closest to her. She says her mother once told her after she landed in the hospital because of a serious accident, “You should have just died.”
‘Culture is prevention’
In February, the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena added a suicide prevention specialist, Cary Waubanascum, who runs a training program in how to question people about their suicidal thoughts, persuade them to seek help and refer them to services.
Over the next two years, the college plans to train half its faculty and 150 of its students in recognizing and preventing suicide, Wabanascum said. Darwin Dick, the tribe’s youth development and outreach director, hopes to extend the program to Menominee Indian High School students.
Dick runs another federally funded program, Native Aspirations, which reconnects youth 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.”
Thundercloud and Pettibone, who live in Madison, have both looked to native culture for healing. Pettibone uses prayer and traditional tobacco offerings to the native creator. Thundercloud says sweat lodge ceremonies have helped relieve her pain in a way no modern medicine has done.
After a “sweat”, she says, “I felt like I was getting rid of all the evils and all the dirt inside of me. It felt like I was getting back in touch with my background, being Indian again.”
Another program, Reaching Out Against Depression and Suicide, based in nearby Shawano, has brought suicide prevention educators to the Menominee Indian High School. It also hosted the 2008 prevention training session that drew more than 100 tribal members, including Summers, who left early to respond to another suicide.
On a national level, the health care reform bill signed by President Obama in March includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, authored by Dorgan. Among its many provisions, the bill directs the IHS to establish comprehensive behavioral health, prevention and treatment programs for Indians.
Now Congress must decide how much of the bill it is willing to fund. “If we can get these funded,” says Dorgan, who’s retiring in January, “I think we will see almost immediate improvement.”
Back in Neopit, Tinker Webster makes a monthly pilgrimage to her son’s grave, a small plot in a shady corner of St. Anthony Cemetery marked by a simple wooden cross.
When Schuyler took his life, Webster was so angry, she didn’t buy a permanent grave marker. In early visits to the cemetery, she would curse and kick at the small rocks lining his grave.
Webster says it’s only in the past three years that she finally forgave Schuyler and herself for his death. In 2008, she mustered the courage to speak publicly during the suicide-prevention event held on the reservation.
And recently, she started looking for a headstone.