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The eagerly anticipated report from the federal intervention team landed as a disappointment, detailing problems at the reservation that most everybody already knew: Mental health services are lacking, violent crime rages, people live in dire economic conditions and in broken homes.
"You know there's not even a personal message to us as parents, or to families about how we raise (our children), but to have the audacity to come in here with this large report and say it's community and parents?" said Roxanne Gourneau, a tribal family court judge whose 17-year-old son Dalton shot himself in November. "They don't know our lifestyle and they don't know who's who and what's what."
The report did include some practical recommendations, such as creating a safe house for suicidal kids instead of locking them up in a jail cell. But those ideas weren't accompanied with funding, giving the impoverished community no way to implement them.
The federal deployment cost $241,000, with an additional $50,000 grant from the Department of Education. There is no additional federal money planned to deal with the crisis.
More is needed, said Patty McGeshick, director of the Family Violence Resource Center in Wolf Point. Counselors are still overwhelmed and unable to properly deal with the crisis, she said.
"It's like trying to put a Band-Aid on an infection through your whole body," McGeshick said.
Some families and community leaders have given up on waiting for outside experts. Some are angry.
"I'm going to tell you something: I'm going to get justice for my son," Gourneau said. "The truth is going to be his justice. We were an ironclad family. We took care of our children and we did everything right. And something really bad happened. Yes, he did pull the trigger. But who created the situation where he lost all hope and despaired? Because his family didn't."
The resurgence in suicides and attempts on the reservation led the tribe to create a new criminal charge in December called aggravated disorderly conduct. The charge allows prosecutors to detain someone threatening suicide until a mental health specialist can see that person.
The charge has been enforced eight times since Dec. 23, and six of those detained have been teenagers, said tribal prosecutor Crawford.
That's in addition to a monthly average of a dozen suicidal people who are given emergency commitment papers for hospitals in Billings or Minot, N.D., Crawford said. Out of those commitments, she estimated that 40 percent are juveniles.
The children who get charged with aggravated disorderly conduct are those who don't qualify for emergency commitment for whatever reason. Jailing people with suicidal thoughts is obviously not a long-term solution, but it's the best the tribe can do without better services or facilities, Crawford said.
"We're not trying to criminalize them. But nobody else is offering any other alternative," she said, while calling for help in building a mental health facility on the reservation.
On the positive side, a new suicide prevention specialist has been hired, there's a weekly interagency suicide prevention coordination meeting and better services are available for walk-in patients at the tribal clinic, Indian Health Service officials said.
James Melbourne, the Fort Peck tribal health director, declined numerous interview requests from the AP to answer community criticism about his agency's response to the suicides.
"We have chosen not to respond in detail with the media to respect our families and community who are continuing to mourn and grieve," Melbourne wrote in an email.
Spiritual leaders say the suicides are rooted in an identity crisis that goes to a cultural and spiritual bankruptcy among Indian youth.
Young people have lost touch with tradition, they say. It's a problem that's grown worse with each generation and is a result of the marginalization of Indian people through the reservation system forced upon them by the federal government many decades ago, said Raymond White Tail Feather, a Baptist minister and former tribal chairman.
"The tribes were contained on reservations, and systematically their culture, the way of life, the federal government attempted to destroy this," said White Tail Feather. "When you do that to a people, what comes about is hopelessness."
Spiritual leader Wetsit presides over the Assiniboine Medicine Lodge, where young men and women participate in a rite-of-passage ceremony based on prayer, sacrifice and reflection. He said a strong sense of identity, coupled with good morals and an understanding of one's own culture gives strength of character.
But many Indian children are disconnected from that culture and spirituality, compromising that strength of character, he said. He said there is no simple answer.
"It's going to take us a couple of generations to work through all of that because we've got a whole bunch of families that are stuck, and they're not going to just come out of it overnight. There's a lot of healing, there are a lot of issues we've got to take care of," Wetsit said.
His message has reached some young tribal members. Josh Failing, a 14-year-old middle school student who attempted to commit suicide last year, said he has taken under his wing a younger cousin who was being bullied and was contemplating suicide.
Failing started spending more time with his cousin and taking him to traditional ceremonies, including sweat lodge. His cousin is still angry all the time, he said, but he's still here.
"We need positive role models for the kids -- leaders -- and we don't get much of that," Failing said. "Give those kids examples, and they can give other people examples, and maybe someday this will all stop and we can all be good people once again."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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