VERMILLION, S.D. — Teenagers Jashawn and Jayton Pease embraced in the end zone while celebrating the 74-39 victory that made their Crow Creek Chieftains the champions of South Dakota’s tribal school league. But as they hugged, tears streamed down their faces.
Jashawn, 15, pounded his fist against his chest and pointed toward the sky.
“I’m playing for my brother because he left for the spirit world,” he said.
In July 2018, J’von Justice Shields, who was 17 and who had played wide receiver for the Chieftains, killed himself. Left behind were his girlfriend, Brianne Saul, their young son, J’von’s seven brothers, and a team and community that are still trying to make sense of his loss.
Such deaths are all too common in Native American communities, which have a suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds that is more than three times that of any other racial or ethnic group in the country. Buffalo County, which includes most of the Crow Creek Reservation where J’von lived, had the highest rate in South Dakota last year.
Friends and family describe J’von as fun-loving and goofy. Jayton, 17, said his brother loved fishing or just sitting in the car and talking. But J’von’s girlfriend said he carried the weight of responsibility for his younger brothers in a family with a mostly-absent father.
The Crow Creek Sioux community is working to prevent more suicides, but it struggles under the weight of its past and a litany of present challenges, including substance abuse and a lack of resources. Illustrating the point, the community’s suicide prevention hotline rings unanswered because staffers were laid off several months ago after the tribe lost a federal grant.
Christine Obago, a tribal council member who used to work in the suicide prevention program, said it has been difficult for the tribe to win and keep grants that could help its future. In September, two tribal leaders pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $100,000 from the tribe’s general welfare account. Obago said the tribe is working on auditing its accounts to improve its chances of getting grants.
In the meantime, a suicide prevention task force comforts families who lose a loved one. Rod Vaughn, a pastor who responds after suicides, said he feels a sense of dread when his phone lights up with a call from police because it’s likely a suicide.
The task force’s chairwoman, Jacqueline Rhode, said teenagers openly post suicidal thoughts on social media, but because of a lack of resources, her ability to respond quickly is sometimes limited. She said she can either call the police to put such teens into protective custody or help the teens get an appointment with a behavioural health specialist.
Dale Walker, a psychiatrist and a Cherokee, runs a research centre that studies mental health among Native Americans at the Oregon Health & Science University. He said the causes of suicide among Native Americans are complex. Among them: coping with historical trauma and a loss of culture that can result in feelings of shame and isolation.
The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe are descendants of the Mdewakanton Dakota Tribe, which was forcefully removed from Minnesota in 1862 after clashes with white settlers. Before his death, J’von participated in an annual horse ride from Crow Creek to Mankato, Minnesota, to honour 40 Dakota men who were hanged after the conflict.
Rhode encourages young tribal members to take pride in their identity and culture while acknowledging the struggles they might face.
“There’s a lot of lack and a lot of pain, but it’s also a place of amazing beauty and amazing culture too,” she said of the community. “It’s a place of a lot of contrast all in a tiny space.”
The Indian Health Services wellness centre hosts classes for people to celebrate traditional crafts such as beading or making moccasins. Dakota language classes recently opened on the reservation. And this year, the community rallied around the football team’s undefeated season.
Last year, the team won just two games. But this season, it joined the new All Nations Conference, which is only open to schools where at least half the students are Native American. The league has breathed new life into many tribal schools’ football programs, including Crow Creek’s.
Jayton and Jashawn say they share a brotherhood with their teammates.
“You have a lot of people in the community who try to step in and be that older brother or that dad figure in your life,” Jayton said.
The Pease brothers filled their season with rituals of commemoration for J’von. Before every game, they knelt on the sideline, taking a moment to remember him. On a pad protecting his back, Jayton printed “JBOOG,” his brother’s nickname.
In the championship game, Jayton made plays all over the field, throwing himself at opponents. He said J’von had always dreamed of the Chieftains winning at “The Dome” in Vermillion, where football championships are decided, and now his brothers had done it.
After the final whistle but before leaving the field, the Crow Creek players huddled and ended their season with a shout: “Family!”