Passing Thoreau - Two Years On, Navajo Suicides Still Haunt Rez. Town

Passing Thoreau - Two Years On, Navajo Suicides Still Haunt Rez. Town

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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 listening to people on and off the reservation for this story. This is the first of two parts.


THOREAU, N.M. — It takes about 20 minutes to walk Thoreau’s main drag end to end, passing the Family Dollar Store and a flea market, where the smell of grease wafts through the stalls and women wearing velveteen skirts and concho belts sell Navajo fry bread and homemade CD mixes, from bands like the Thunders, the Wingate Valley Boys, the Navajo Sundowners.

Bars cover the B&J Laundrymat’s windows; the owner provides change and boxes of detergent from behind Plexiglas.

In the concrete skate park across the street, an athletic 17-year-old Navajo wears a skullcap with a kelly-green cannabis leaf stitched to the front. He skates, even though it is early afternoon and school is still in session. He has been expelled from Thoreau High for carrying his board to class, he said. Now he has time to practice.

He pushes off the homemade platform and maneuvers around the curved obstacles in front of him, over words painted on the track. A local church group arrived at the skate park a few months earlier with paint the color of the New Mexico sky. Young Navajos were given thick brushes and invited to express themselves. Now the gravel-strewn asphalt shouts “forgotten,” “trapped,” “grieving,” “ugly” and “broken-hearted.”

At the far end of the street, next to the Zuni Mountain pawn shop, is a dirt-packed and weedy cemetery. Plastic gladioli and roses decorate many of the graves, a few newly turned, offering the road’s only splash of color. Some of the 15 young Navajos who killed themselves two years ago are buried here.

The teen suicides in Thoreau happened on the heels of nine others, which took place in another reservation town, Fort Defiance, about 60 minutes away. After New Mexico media reported on Thoreau’s suicide cluster, Joe Shirley Jr., then president, declared a state of emergency that summer of 2010, on this, the largest Indian reservation in the country. The declaration allowed the tribe to target limited mental health resources on Thoreau.

Still, the acknowledgment of a suicide epidemic was a long-time coming.

“This has been going on for years, under the radar,” said Michelle Kahn-John, a Navajo psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner. “Five years ago, you would only hear about boys committing suicide,” she said. “Girls would make attempts, but boys would complete. Now girls are completing. That’s very different.”

The lives of those teenagers who “completed” in Thoreau were like puffs of wind to those beyond the town limits, invisible and quickly dissipated. Trying to figure out the whys is complicated by culture, history and grief. Few in Navajo country are willing to talk about death or these deaths, especially to outsiders.

Two years later, in this town known as D’lóó ‘a yázhi, or “little prairie dog,” in this high-desert stretch of western New Mexico, there is still unemployment and despair. The per capita income for Navajos in Thoreau is a little more than $6,000, and the unemployment rate for all residents is pushing 22 percent. But there has also been progress and help, parades and graduations.

This is Thoreau, the town pronounced “through” by everyone here.

‘It’s hard to talk about the suicides’

Kahn-John, director of behavioral health at the Fort Defiance Indian Hospital, said most of the kids in her unit are admitted for clinical depression or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said many of them have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

She said young Navajo lives are still in danger. In a recent email, Kahn-John, who has worked at the reservation’s only in-patient adolescent facility since it opened in 2005, wrote: “Many Navajo communities question why there was such a large response to Thoreau when we’ve had the same number or even more completed teen suicides in previous years in neighboring communities. Overall, we’re glad that attention and support was provided to Thoreau [but] the teen suicide problem is not over on Navajo.”

Though the suicide picture varies significantly across regions, tribes and communities within tribes, U.S. Indian Country suicide rates overall are high and skew overwhelmingly toward the young. It’s the inverse nationally, where suicide is most prevalent among those 65 and older.

The national average for suicide among teenagers between 15 and 19 years old is 7.6 per 100,000 annually. Thoreau’s number — 15 deaths in less than nine months, in a geographic area of no more than 8,000 inhabitants — was 25 times higher than that.

Unemployment, alcoholism and violent crime have been acute on the reservation for decades, breeding a sense of hopelessness among the young and old. The recession, which coincided with the suicide clusters, was not so much a tipping point as just another turn of the screw.

Thoreau is in an area of western New Mexico called “the checkerboard” because tribal lands, where alcohol is prohibited, intermingle with 160-acre parcels of private, state and federal lands. Thoreau itself is a checkerboard within a checkerboard, with Navajos and non-Navajos living within shouting distance. It’s where the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation becomes porous, where economies, cultures and destinies bump each other and mix.

Analyzing what happened then or what is happening now is hampered by Navajo culture itself.

“Death is a fact of life,” said Ray Daw, a Navajo hired as director of the tribe’s Behavioral Health Services a month after the state of emergency was declared. “Death happens to everyone, so why talk about it? It’s something that one prepares for individually,” he said. Daw added that use of the word “suicide” is also discouraged. “We prefer terms like ‘life preservation,’ ” he said.

Kahn-John was raised with the same worldview Daw described and struggled with the cultural proscription. In fact, many Navajos consider it taboo to even refer to a person who has died, Kahn-John said, and violating the taboo invites evil spirits and sometimes death to the transgressor. “It’s hard to talk about the suicides just because of the cultural cautions that I have, like, ‘Don’t talk about it; don’t even say that.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in trouble for saying that culturally.’ But clinically, that’s what I see,” she said.

She also was reticent to discuss the Navajo suicide clusters because there have been well-documented cases in which attention paid to suicides encouraged copycat deaths.

The phenomenon of “suicide contagion” was first chronicled in the 18th century when young men inspired by the doomed hero in Goethe’s novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” shot themselves while wearing Werther’s trademark blue jacket and yellow vest. That was the era of slow cultural transmission. With Facebook and the human interconnectedness of small towns with deeply interwoven, tribal, clan systems, the “Werther Effect” can strike with the speed of instant messaging. The risk of suicide contagion is heightened for teenagers, according to Dr. Madelyn Gould, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University. In an interview with NPR, she noted that “Adolescents are intensely focused on other teenagers and imitating the behaviors of other teens.”

Hearing voices from the past

“The problem of the Navaho is essentially the problem of all of us – adjustment to life,” wrote Alexander and Dorothea Leighton in their 1946 book “The Navaho Door.” The book was written 80 years after Kit Carson’s scorched-earth campaign starved Navajos from their homes and their hiding places and rounded them up, then forced them to walk 300 miles to a concentration camp near Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Hundreds died on the way.

Contemporary Thoreau lies astride the route of that forced migration, which is rutted in Navajo collective memory.

The first suicide in the Thoreau cluster was a 13-year-old boy who hanged himself just before Halloween 2009. The 8th-grader was failing all his subjects at the time of his death and was seeing a substance-abuse counselor. Juliana Ko, then 22, was his math teacher, working in Thoreau in her second year of the Teach for America program. “He had so much potential. That’s the thing that really frustrates me because these kids don’t even know what they have, the difference they can make. And he could have done a lot with his life,” Ko said.

Ko is Korean-American, but with her long, black hair and dark eyes she was often mistaken for Navajo. A Christian Scientist, she said her faith was challenged by what she experienced in Thoreau: In addition to the suicide, she had cutters in her class, gang members, soon-to-be dropouts. In her first week on the job, she caught one of her students using drugs in class. Kids came to school hungry. Many didn’t do their homework because there was no peace and quiet, or even electricity, in their homes. Almost 40 percent of Navajo reservation dwellings lack electricity. “They are our most valuable resource as a Nation, and they’re getting the shaft in so many ways,” Ko said of the children.

Ko’s student had loved the “horror core” rap duo Insane Clown Posse — wildly popular among kids throughout the reservation — and had carved the group’s initials into his hand before hanging himself. At his funeral, friends had wrapped an ICP necklace around the boy’s wrists and hung posters with ICP lyrics near his open casket.

Lines from Insane Clown Posse’s “Suicide Hotline” include:

It ain’t no point to me wakin’ up
Everybody's time I'm takin’ up
You don't understand, so don’t say you do
I swear I'll put a motherf---n' slug in you
I'm the only one, the lonely one
At home alone loadin' a gun, thinkin' why not?

Some on the reservation, including Ko, blamed the group’s dark lyrics for kids killing themselves. Kahn-John had another take. Commiserative and clear-eyed in what seemed a good combination for disturbed teens, she brought up Insane Clown Posse unprompted. “Kids will make a good argument as to why they are a good role model,” she said, although their music conveys a lot of gore, blood, anger. “But that’s what they are experiencing. That level of anger. That level of ugliness,” she said.

‘You started seeing the kids change’

How one sees the Western landscape very much depends on frame of reference. The unimpeded horizons and massive geologic formations of the Navajo reservation that for many inspire a sense of belonging to something much bigger, something like the cosmos, are for others suffocating, oppressive and crushingly bleak. “You know what’s wrong with New Mexico?” asks Kirk Douglas’s irascible character in Billy Wilder’s 1951 movie “Ace in the Hole,” filmed outside Gallup. “Too much outdoors!”

Walking down a dirt road called Paradise Lane in Thoreau one afternoon was a young transgender Navajo named Skyler Payaso. She was hung over but friendly after a night in Gallup, wearing tight pink pants, her mascara and eyeliner smudged. When asked about life in Thoreau, she said, “It’s the Rez! There’s nothing around here. If you stay home, you’re going to be bored, so the only options are hang out, drink, get high. You’re going to have to amuse yourself somehow.” She knew one of the suicides and said he had killed himself at 14 because his girlfriend had sex with another guy. “They are with that emo crowd,” Payaso said. She pulled her long, platinum bangs in front of her eyes, slumped her shoulders, peered through her hair and said, “‘Be all sad...’” As she turned to leave, she threw her arms wide and said, “This is some sad poverty.”

Payaso’s sentiments were echoed one night at the American Bar in Gallup. The jukebox was playing George Jones’s “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” while Ron Deschinny, a Navajo and an accountant for the tribe as well as a native of Thoreau, sat at the bar nursing a Bud Light. When asked about the teenage suicides, he said, “I kind of look at Thoreau as the lost misfits community. Because they’re a border town… The forgotten… They’re like a community that’s been left out on the outer rim of society.”

His daughter’s friend at Thoreau High School committed suicide. Deschinny suggested that to really understand why young Navajos felt alienated and hopeless, one had to read “Brave New World.” Aldous Huxley’s novel, published in 1932, describes an industrial whirligig where conformity is scientifically engineered and pharmaceutically abetted, and where consumerism is the heart that keeps everything beating. The only place not yet infected is a remote reservation somewhere in New Mexico. John the Savage, the novel’s tragic hero, is brought to “civilization” from the reservation and pressed to assimilate. It is an experiment that does not end well.

Huxley’s hero suffered from what would today be termed “cultural dissonance,” an existential clash over values and styles of life. Daw, who left as the Navajo Nation’s health director late last year to become behavioral health administrator for the Yukon-Kokuskwim Healthcare Corporation in Bethel, Alaska, said recently that he believed that the teen suicides in Thoreau were fueled in part by an internalized clash between Navajo and mainstream culture. “It has to do with personal and cultural identity,” he said, adding that language is a “big part” of that identity. Achieving a strong sense of the personal and cultural self has only gotten more difficult.

Dr. Peter Stuart was witness to a Navajo culture in transition, and used the phrase “cultural dissonance” frequently when talking about the problem of teen suicides on the reservation. When Stuart arrived in 1993 as a psychiatrist for the Indian Health Service, Navajo boys were wearing Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Country music was big. But within a few years, he’d noticed a change. “You began seeing these satellite dishes sitting outside hogans,” he said, referring to the octagonal earthen and wood structures in which many Navajos live.

“You started seeing the kids change from kind of very rural-, country-, livestock-, powwow-, rodeo-kind-of oriented kids with a kind of local perspective to starting to adopt some of the activities and practices of people in the cities,” Stuart said. “Until you end up with the kind of incongruous picture of a dirt hogan in the middle of the desert with smoke curling out the top, no electricity coming in to it, but they have a Honda generator outside that they have hooked up so they’re watching TV.” The first direct-broadcast satellite in North America, Hughes DirecTV, went on line in 1994. Kids born around then are high-school age now.

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.