'When you are on that horse, you are honoring life'
Note: I had the opportunity to photograph and visit with young people here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation looking to create awareness about suicide and bullying. Below is the story I wrote (with some edits) that was originally posted on my day job's website.
Set on horseback, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation youth recently rode from Wanblee, SD, to Pine Ridge, SD, to speak up about the epidemic of suicide. The ride took three days with stops in between the nearly 100-mile ride.
Co-organizer Lauren Janis, a 16-year-old at Little Wound High School, started the organization Fight for Life along with fellow student Evelyn Quick Bear to raise awareness. They decided to launch Ride for Life as one of the events to do that. The suicide rate on Pine Ridge is more than twice the national rate with teen suicide at four times the national rate.
When the Ride for Life riders stopped in Kyle, SD, to rest and eat, Lauren spoke about their expectations of the event.
"We hoped that the turnout was going to be great and get the point across that suicide is not a way to go out and there is always someone who loves you. Events like this bring community, friendships and family together," she said. About 20 riders participated. "Horses are sacred to us and fits into our culture. Suicide isn't part of our culture. When you are on that horse, you are honoring life -- not giving up on life."
Rodney Bad Hand of Wanblee said the ride gives an "eye-opening" experience. He said his son Ethan, 13, has experienced bullying. Ethan chose to be one of the riders and it was his first time riding a horse at such a large distance.
"A lot more students are dealing with what he's facing," he said. "We are always there for our kids. A family that prays together, stays together. We pray at every meal."
The effects of suicide on the community are palpable. Kim Conroy of Wanblee expressed how much it can not only directly affect the lost loved one's family, but how it hurts everyone in the area. She mentioned that one year suicide attempts ranged from an 88-year-old woman to a 6-year-old.
"We have just as much crime as an inner city - it's just more out in the open here," she said.
Students like Ethan are some of the youth who like to participate in suicide prevention programs and events whenever he can. He said he enjoyed himself and that events like the ride are necessary.
"It was a cool experience for me. It was a long ride but at least I made it and I will come back tomorrow," he said. "I think people should participate in everything that is about suicide prevention. This is my first time riding but I've been in a bunch of events. I just like to have fun and it's a good way to make friends."
The young organizers of the Ride for Life event came up with the idea on their own but did seek some guidance from Lucas Martin, school improvement coordinator. In addition, the students approached the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council for financial assistance and the funding was approved.
Mr. Martin said the girls aren't stopping with just the ride -- "they want to make life more enjoyable for the reservation." They are looking to start a nonprofit and are already preparing the paperwork. Their goal is to build an indoor athletic complex with the hope to create jobs, entertainment and hope for the future.
"I think it's awesome that the youth have stepped up. The students have brought an actually student perspective to the situation as oppose to what the pervious attempts have been," he said. "More students are willing to take a leadership role to stand against it [suicide]. With the older culture, you didn't talk about it -- it just happened. Now the younger generation wants to take a role to stop it."