Gone Girl

Life in Pine Ridge after the suicide of 12-year-old Santana Janis

Life in Pine Ridge after the suicide of 12-year-old Santana Janis
Santana Janis in August 2014

A day in early August 2014. The sun is strong, and the thought of school is far enough away to be a dream. A dozen Lakota girls from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota make their way to a site called Coyote Springs. It’s 30 minutes from the nearest town, down a winding dirt path lined with prairie grass. It’s sacred land, and the house they’re headed to is the only building for miles.

Each summer, elder Inila Wakan Janis and his wife, Jennifer Janis, a teacher at the local middle school, present a math camp there for the girls. It’s a way to keep them up with studies during the summer as well as a chance to imprint the spiritual and cultural practices of their people.

After completing a math worksheet and eating a lunch of roasted squash and zucchini grown next to the house, 12-year-old Santana Janis is the first to climb into the creaky old metal pool that’s set up beside the house. She and the other girls splash around, do underwater flips before tumbling out, running back to the house covered in grass.

Next stop is the inipi, a domed sweat lodge made of branches and native grasses, covered in tarps and quilts to keep in the heat. Inside, the girls remember their ancestors, following Inila Wakan Janis in a memorial song for an elder who recently passed away.

Top left: The girls take a break in the pool from their math studies. Top right: A pause during the ceremony of the throwing of the ball. Top bottom: Santana Janis, left, leans in to a selfie with her friends and the girls splash around in a metal pool. (Click to enlarge images)

Then they rinse off, slip into their nicest clothes and prepare for tapa wankaye yapi, the throwing of the ball. One girl stands in the center and throws the ball overhead to the north, south, east and west. The ball represents Mother Earth; after each throw, the catcher runs around the circumference of the circle and passes the ball back to the thrower.

Santana catches the ball to the north. She smiles and is uncharacteristically shy as Janis, one of her grandfathers, presents her with a beaded medallion necklace. This is a girl who makes friends easily, who plays basketball and can ride a horse bareback.

But nearly six months later, she’s dead, a suicide. While a relative sleeps in another part of the house, Santana goes into the basement, loops a clothesline around her neck and then slides her knees down a wall until she dies.

It’s not that youth suicide is uncommon in Native American communities. But the cluster of suicides on Pine Ridge has attracted special attention. The same month that Santana took her own life, John Yellowbird Steele, the president of the Oglala Lakota, declared an emergency on the reservation. By June 2015, he was testifying in front of Congress, citing the loss of 11 lives in just seven months, with an additional 176 youth attempting suicide.

Girls in particular are at risk, said Beulah White Crane, 55, who was the counselor at Little Wound School in nearby Manderson, where Santana went to school the year she killed herself. White Crane met with Santana on numerous occasions, helping her through typical teen issues, such as bullying, as well as with the absence of female figures in her life, such as her mother and a grandmother.

“I always wonder, who comforts you? Who teaches you about your moon, about the ceremonies and about being a woman if their mothers aren’t around?” asked White Crane. 

Generational trauma runs deep in Lakota communities. For years after the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, youths were forcefully assimilated and their culture destroyed in boarding schools. Families who were forced off their property were left with no land, no resources. For many, the cycle of disenfranchisement continues.

Santana’s grandfather Inila Wakan Janis holds his son, Iyan, at the end of a week of math camp in August 2014. (Click to enlarge images)

Janis faults the United States for Santana’s death. “They put these systems in place that make it so difficult for indigenous families to get help,” he said. “They gave us a system that made the Lakota believe we govern ourselves when we really don’t.”

“Right or wrong,” he said, “I blame them.”

Here’s what he means: When a member of the tribe wants to create a program — a safehouse and funding to go along with it, for example — it needs to go from the local level to the tribal council to the head of the council for a vote. The bureaucracy and a lack of funding mean that well-intentioned initiatives, including a youth transitional home in Kyle, are underfunded, understaffed and underutilized.

In November 2015, nearly nine months after Santana committed suicide, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, denied a five-year, $3.6 million grant for the Oglala tribe to continue its Sweetgrass suicide prevention program, claiming the grant application was “poorly written.” After deliberation with tribal members, the agency agreed to extend the project for one year with $200,000.

Janis saw that more options were necessary to make a real change in the lives of Lakota youths.

Janis’s grandfather Earl Tall looks at a shirt with her image held by her other grandfather Inila Wakan Janis. (Click to enlarge images)

Soon after Santana’s death, Inila Wakan and Jennifer Janis set up a Facebook group, the Santana House, a grass-roots prevention network to identify and intervene in cases of Native American teens who might be thinking of killing themselves. Its members are Native Americans from around the country. Those watching the page post profiles of youths who need encouragement, and members send encouraging messages to walls and inboxes of at-risk youths.

“We have intervened in cases from as far as away as Arizona,” said Inila Wakan Janis.

He wants to create a real-life version of the Facebook group as a safe space for young people to go when they need time away from home. “They need to feel like they have a family,” he said. “A lot of times, their families aren’t there for them.”

While the door to the Janises’ home is always open, there needs to be a different kind of respite home, with staffers who are trained, are paid and, most important, care about the lives of youths. He has tried to raise funds, but two fundraisers have managed to raise less than $7,000, a disappointing total compared with the goal of a half million dollars.

Tianna Red Owl bounces a basketball against the wall in the basement of Inila Janis’s house, where Santana often stayed. (Click to enlarge images)

Santana’s death had a direct impact on the community. According to her grandfather Janis, after she took her life, the number of youth suicides and attempts decreased dramatically. “That winter, after she left, there was only one attempt by a young person,” he said.

His home has long been a place of refuge for youths seeking stability in the midst of chaotic home situations. Santana spent much of her time with two of his daughters — Wasu, 16, and Hopi, 14 — and a crew of girls from around the reservation who would congregate in the basement to bounce basketballs, share frustrations and laughs and, like any teenager, constantly stare at their phones, Snapchatting or posting on Facebook.

While there were typical teenage posts (selfies, talk about boys dotted with emojis) others revealed a darker side of the girls’ emotions (a photo of a noose, a shot of cut wrists, an emo meme talking of how no one would miss them). 

A recent visit to the Janises’ house shows that the crew of girls still gathers there. Asked what they remembered about Santana, most of them fell silent. But Tianna Redowl, a spunky seventh-grader, spoke up, bouncing a basketball hard on the concrete floor between sentences. 

“She was the best ever,” Tianna said. Bounce. “She was my riding buddy.” Bounce. “The coolest ever.”

When young people on the reservation attempt suicide, they are often sent to treatment centers in Rapid City. These centers are often no more than holding cells, offering little to nothing in the way of culturally relevant or spiritually centered therapies, and young people return to vulnerable homes, with little in the way of a support network.

Santana's friends wear shirts with her images during her remembrance ceremony on Feb. 4, 2016 in Manderson, South Dakota, top. A photo of Santana, taken by photographer Alex Potter, is displayed on a cake at the remembrance ceremony, left. Santana’s relative Wasu Janis hugs a friend from Santana's school at the ceremony. (Click to enlarge images)

Traditionally in Lakota culture, the first anniversary of a person’s death is noted with a spirit release ceremony. But when Santana’s family had to postpone it until the spring, there was a memorial instead at Wounded Knee School in Manderson. Kids filled the bleachers in the gym, and there was a slideshow with photos of Santana — playing basketball, riding her horse without a saddle. “Halo” by Beyoncé and “Try” by Colbie Caillat, two of Santana’s favorite songs, played in the background.

The crowd watched in silence. A few slipped out when they were overcome by emotion. After the slideshow, there was a cake with photos of Santana on top. Janis walked past a line of youths wearing T-shirts with Santana’s image, carrying burning sweetgrass and feeding them the ceremonial food wasna, ground and dried buffalo meat. Girls looked each other straight in the eyes and then wiped away each other’s tears.

When Santana caught the ball in August 2014, it was to the north. And her Lakota name is Waniyetu Wakan Mani Wi (Woman Who Walks With the Spirit of the North). In Lakota culture, the direction’s corresponding color is white, representing the long winter and the trials that come with it, the lessons of perseverance and endurance. Those Santana left behind are learning both.

Girls jump to catch a ball representing Mother Earth, top, in Kyle, South Dakota, August 2014. (Click to enlarge images)

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