Ed. Note: After a string of suicides two years ago, money and additional resources poured into the tiny town of Thoreau, N.M., where economies, cultures and destinies bump and collide, and where more than one Navajo teen has lost hope and a sense of identity. Although the crisis spawned a reservation-wide state of emergency, the Navajo Nation still sits on a ragged edge. Marilyn Berlin Snell has been writing on the Navajo Nation since 2000. She spent a year speaking with people on and off the reservation for this story. This is the second of two parts.
Pt. 1: Passing Thoreau - Two Years On, Navajo Suicides Still Haunt Rez. Town
In May 2010, there were more suicides in Thoreau. A 16-year-old boy hanged himself on the school basketball court. A short while later, a 16-year-old girl hanged herself in her mother’s closet. Then the girl’s 17-year-old half-brother hanged himself.
Members of these suicide victims’ families attended Pastor Mark Mitchell’s First Baptist Church on Thoreau’s main drag. Mitchell, an Anglo, is 6-feet-4 and stands out in his cowboy hat and cross-shaped bolo tie. The 45-year-old former rodeo man and Marine came from Florida, where his congregation had been mostly poor migrant workers. When the suicides started he had been in Thoreau only a short time. Mitchell presided over the half-siblings’ funerals. When the father of the two teens tried to hang himself, Mitchell was called to the man’s home and saved his life.
The 17-year-old suicide had just been expelled from Thoreau High School for marijuana possession and was living with his mother, brother and sister and five other relatives — nine souls total — in a two-bedroom mobile home. The boy slept in his mother’s car because he had said it was roomier than the trailer. On the night he died, he took a picture of himself with the cell phone his grandparents had given him for his birthday the week before, then apologized to his grandmother for letting her down and being kicked out of school. His grandfather found him near dawn, hanging beneath the back porch. The grandfather’s shouts awoke the rest of the family, and in the ensuing chaos, the dead boy’s sister broke away and ran outside. She watched as her uncle untangled the noose from her brother’s neck and laid him on the ground.
Two years later, Mitchell says of the crisis that lead to the medical state of emergency, “I think it rode its course, but we’re still right there on the ragged edge. I wish there was a way to wrap the story up in a nice neat bow, but the same problems are still here. There is incest. There’s alcohol. There’s drugs. These people need some hope, and they don’t have it. There’s not a way to put a bow on that.”
Clan system’s 'interconnectedness'
Research has shown that, on average, every suicide deeply and dangerously affects seven people. “But in tribal communities like the Navajo, with its complex clan system, it’s probably an order of magnitude larger,” psychiatrist Stuart said. “You have the immediate family as well as the extended relatives. The impact and reverberations throughout that family network are significant.” The clan system represents an interconnectedness that kept the Navajo tribe intact for hundreds of years. Now, because suicide is so prevalent on the reservation, that interconnectedness can work against many of its members.
Komeiko Manuelito, a Thoreau teenager, explained the clan system one afternoon. When introducing themselves, she said, Navajos commonly state their mother’s, father’s, maternal grandfather’s and paternal grandfather’s clans. “It’s Meadow People born for Bitter Water,” Komeiko said. “Then Salt Clan, which is my mom’s dad’s clan, and then Filipino, which is my dad’s dad’s clan. That’s who you are.”
Of her two sisters and a brother, she’s the most “traditional,” she said. She’s learning Navajo and likes to wear traditional dress for special occasions. Her younger sister, Keona, wore a Run-DMC T-shirt with a “V” she’d cut into the neckline. Keona rolled her eyes when talk of tradition came up, but nodded in agreement as her sister described their family.
Their father had a job at the power plant east of the town, but can no longer work steadily because of a beating that led to a permanent injury, she said. Their mother was back in school, studying for a nursing degree while also volunteering and raising four kids. A cousin committed suicide. Komeiko spoke matter-of-factly as she described her family’s travails.
“It was hard for us, but we have a strong family,” she said. Her parents are strict, Komeiko said. “But they push us to keep going. They want us to do good.”
And she has. After graduating from Thoreau High School, Komeiko went to Albuquerque’s Brookline Community College. She’ll graduate in December and plans to go into the medical field, like her mother.
‘I know what Clorox tastes like’
Knowing someone who has killed himself or herself is one of the main risk factors for suicide. According to behavioral health counselors in Thoreau, there were two families — extended through the Navajo clan system — involved in the majority of youth suicides there. “I had it down on a flip chart to help get a picture of how this whole family was related,” said Navajo counselor T. J. Anderson. He said if the suicides weren’t clan or family, they were friends.
The ringtone on Anderson’s cell phone is the opening theme from the spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” When it rang, he smiled. Only then was it possible to see he was missing his two lower front teeth. He’d lived a hard life, beginning at the nearby Fort Wingate Indian boarding school off I-40, where he was ridiculed and punished for speaking English with a strong Navajo accent. “I know what Clorox tastes like,” Anderson said. In what he described as a misguided effort to protect his own children from the fate he’d met at boarding school, Anderson didn’t teach them Navajo.
His daughter, while a student at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., sent Anderson a paper she’d written about her upbringing. “She said, ‘I yearn to learn the language, the songs, the traditions. The essence of Dine spirituality, the essence of our existence, from my grandma. But how can I, when I cannot speak nor understand the language?’ … I didn’t want them to be teased like the way I was teased and picked on,” Anderson said. “I sat there and read it, and as I was reading, slowly come to realize I had become a perpetrator. I had become a warrior for the government. This is what the government set out to do back in 1868: Take the culture, the identity, the language, the ceremony, the way of life of the Navajo people, assimilate us… I neglected and abused and abandoned my daughter.”
School-based prevention takes shape
Anderson had worked at nearby Gallup, in New Mexico’s detox center for 14 years, beginning in 1983. He and Daw started one of the country’s first Native-based rehabilitation programs at the center, using traditional Navajo ceremonies and sweat lodges to treat their mostly Indian population in Gallup. The program was recognized nationally for its success.
Anderson was drafted by Daw to be a part of Thoreau’s Unified Command Incident Management team, set up in June 2010 after the emergency was declared. Anderson referred to himself as a “student of traditional medicine” — rejecting the label “medicine man” — and said he knew from experience what it’s like to be an angry and alienated young Navajo: He had been one of them. Anderson said that “spiritual and emotional starvation” led to the Thoreau teenagers’ deaths.
Daw believes that the reason there have been no teen suicides in Thoreau in 2012 is due, in part, to the programs put in place after the emergency declaration. Daw and his team targeted Thoreau High School. “That’s where the work needed to happen,” he said. “We focused on school-based prevention and intervention and also invited elders in to talk about Navajo cultural practices… The programs had some good impact.”
Daw said many young Navajos “live lives of chronic anxiety, depression and anger, and make the decision to end their lives because they just don’t want to be that way anymore… Almost everyone in Navajo society has bought into the market economy as a way to live. When you do that, these measuring sticks become valuable. Not just important but valuable as a way to identify ourselves. ‘Oh, I live in poverty, and my family makes less than $6,000 a year. I don’t add up, and according to the American way of doing things, I’m really close to useless.’”
Daw – whose replacement to head Navajo Behavioral Health has yet to be named – described what he said to teenagers when he traveled the reservation during the state of emergency. “I asked, ‘How many of you are looking to get a job when you graduate?’ It didn’t matter if it was in the heartland of Navajo or one of the border towns. It was 100 percent. In order to keep up with the Joneses, and surpass them — it’s going to be harder than hell doing it here. I told them: ‘OK. No. 1, finish high school. No. 2, go to college. No. 3, get a job off the reservation.’ ”
“That’s reality today, not five years from now,” he said, with more sadness than anger. After a pause he added that his forthrightness would probably get him into trouble. “That’s what ticks people off when I say those things, because Navajo culture, you’re talking about the future. And if we’re going to save lives, we’ve got to save lives today.”
The way forward for the Navajo is murky. As a practical matter, much that is regarded as Navajo today was perfected in the process of modifying what was introduced from elsewhere: Silversmithing and sheep-herding came from the Spanish, for instance. Legend says Spider Woman taught the Navajos how to weave, but so did the Pueblo Indians.
Navajos have always been innovators. Those Navajo rugs may point to a way forward, in fact. In Thoreau’s pawnshops and trading posts and stalls at the flea market, one can see intricate patterns in the rugs. On many of them, a clearly visible woven line runs to their outside edge. Most tourists see this incongruous line as a flaw, but it is there on purpose. The patterns created by the Navajo weaver possess so much of her power that an escape route is required. It’s called a “spirit line,” and it allows the weaver, in essence, to repossess herself, to get her animating force back. Because the rugs are woven on a loom, with vertical warps and horizontal wefts, the patterns also look digitalized, and strangely modern. Those bitmapped designs, centuries old, fit our digital age and suggest the possibility that even those whose reality has become pixilated can read and absorb their meaning. These future-primitive messages are for Navajo teenagers as much as anyone, presenting in metaphor a way to breathe power back into themselves — to be “inspired” in the strict sense of the word.
As opportunities shrink and obstacles mount for young Navajos, inspiration is invaluable – and not just on the reservation. When asked recently whether Thoreau was out of danger, Daw was quiet for a long time before he answered. Finally, he said, “I don’t think any community is.”
Ko, the teacher whose 13-year-old student was the first suicide, finished out the 2010 school year at Thoreau Middle School. Her last class project was called Rebuilding Thoreau. Encouraging her students to use algebra and geometry, Ko introduced the themes of architecture, renewable energy and city planning. She separated the class into teams and tasked them with building to scale the community they wanted to live in.
One team built a factory to make Monster energy drinks. Another had day care and different social services. One had a big hotel, complete with a swimming pool on the roof. The model that most impressed Ko, however, had solar panels on every building. “This was an inclusion class, and they had some low math skills, but they just took off with this project,” she said. The students even had a shop that sold solar panels, and all the projects had parks and green spaces.
“That inspired me because the [kids] deserved those things,” said Ko. “They deserved a place to go after school if they didn’t want to go home to a dysfunctional situation. A place to do homework!” Partly inspired by these cardboard dreams, Ko decided to leave teaching and start the Thoreau Community Center. The center’s grand opening was in November 2010. It was attended by a medicine man who blessed the building with songs and corn pollen; grade schoolers singing in Navajo; and Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly, a Thoreau native.
Later, when asked why his hometown had seen so many self-inflicted deaths, Shelly said he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said. “You’ll see a kid walking down the road. You see a lot of them here. They hang around, and that’s how things get started. I know the unemployment is high. What is it, that we’re so close to I-40? Is it that we go to the new casino?”
The next chapter
In 2011, a year after opening the community center, Juliana Ko returned to Florida to be near her family and boyfriend, but she continues to direct the center via telephone and Skype. And the center continues to be influential. One student has given up self-mutilation and begun typing and printing her poetry on the Community Center’s computers. She decorated each page with computer-generated art and kept them in a bright red folder in her backpack.
October 2011 was the two-year anniversary of the first suicide, and the last Friday of that month was homecoming at Thoreau High School, complete with a parade that began near the cemetery. The entire route was lined with pickups and cars parked side to side, their headlights aimed toward the street. People sat on the hoods and waved at friends and family. Young women running for Homecoming Queen or Princess paraded by. Kimberly Johnson wore four-inch heels and a zebra-print strapless dress. Her bangs cut across her forehead like a Navajo Cleopatra, and she was perched on the roof of a Ford pickup, waving to the crowd in the perfect polish-a-light-bulb hand gesture of a beauty-pageant contestant. Raelene Charley, dressed traditionally in a long broom skirt and velveteen top, rode a horse and flung Halloween candy to the crowd from her saddlebag. Her hair was pulled back with white cloth in a figure-eight-shaped bun. She rocked her Navajo bling: a squash-blossom necklace, long loops of turquoise earrings, inlaid bracelets and a silver concho belt.
It looked like the entire population of Thoreau was out to celebrate. Beyond, it is true, car tires dotted roofs, placed atop mobile homes as weights to keep the sheet metal from blowing off in the wind. Kids in the skate park were getting high and ignoring the festivities. The material facts and the presence of absence persisted, like T. S. Eliot’s shadows under his red rocks, like his “Wasteland.” Yet today, at least, the usually colorless street had life.
The young man at the head of the parade, Tyrell Platero, carried the green banner of the Thoreau Hawks. He had known all 15 teenagers who had committed suicide in 2009 and 2010. A self-professed science nerd, he was now on the Community Center’s board of directors and had sung in Navajo with his grandfather during the Grand Opening blessing ceremony. He is heading to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in the fall.
But some kids in the parade were unrecognizable. Their faces hidden by Halloween masks, they could have been anyone.
Marilyn Berlin Snell is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in a range of publications, including The New Republic, The New York Times, Discover and Mother Jones, and the radio program, This American Life. This project was funded in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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