Low graduation, high suicide rates plague Native American youth

Carl Moore
Founders of the League took a selfie at one of their first meetings. Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Carl Moore, Jonny Griffith, Moroni Benally, Cassandra Begay, unknown, Alexandria Toledo, Miriam Padilla, Colleen O’Neil, Carol Surveyor and James Singer. (Carl Moore via Facebook)

When Moroni Benally of the Navajo nation perused Utah public officials campaigns in early October, he said he noticed none of them addressed Native American issues. To respond to this problem, Benally called several people in Utah to form the Utah League of Native American Voters.

Benally said the idea is a “direct response” to the lack of attention given to Native issues within policy platforms and most candidates running for public office in Utah.

“What I found was most of the politicians, when they talked about Native issues in Utah, they talked about it in the context of public lands,” Benally said.

As their first official act, the league organized a meeting for Oct. 26 and sent emails to all of Utah’s representatives. James Singer, one of the other league founders, said this meeting is the first of its kind nationwide.

Although many representatives were positive in their responses and eager to attend the event, Benally said others were very dismissive. He said the absence of certain campaign representatives was noticeable at their first meeting, where roughly 300 people attended.

Benally said tribal leaders present found these absences disrespectful. However, he said the campaign representatives who did attend were overwhelmingly supportive. Issues discussed included tribal sovereignty and poverty among Native Americans.

“All of them expressed a willingness to learn about tribal issues,” Benally said.

Two large issues facing Native Americans in Utah — particularly youth — are high rates of suicide and low rates of high school graduation. As of 2015, the overall Utah graduation rate was 84 percent. But for Native American students, that percentage is just 69.

Only 69 percent of Native American students graduate high school, according to the Utah Superintendents 2015 annual report. (Aaron Endy)

Ikaika Cole, an Orem native, BYU student and member of the Mohawk tribe, gave his opinion as to why the graduation rate among Native Americans is so low.

“Culturally, sometimes we’re not encouraged to ask a lot of questions to those who are in authority,” Cole said. “(Native American students) don’t ask questions, they don’t get help, they don’t graduate.”

Cole cited other reasons as well, such as a lack of education for parents and being surrounded by people who don’t strive for success. He said surrounding himself with people who are driven to succeed and who try to help others succeed is what has helped him the most.

Mele Etsitty, center, takes a picture with other members of BYU’s Living Legends. (Mele Etsitty)

Mele Etsitty grew up on a reservation in Arizona, but at age 15 began attending boarding school in Utah. She said other reasons Native American students drop out have to do with poverty and family.

“Students who do drop out are mostly trying to help their parents,” Etsitty said.

Racism also plays a role in Native Americans’ low graduation rates, according to Etsitty.

“I was told that I would never amount to anything, that I would never make it into BYU,” Etsitty said.

Now that Etsitty is a student at BYU, she said she sometimes deals with racism on
campus. She said she sees it in small things, like not being included in a group discussion in class.

This data represents nationwide suicide rates among different races. Native Americans only account for roughly 2 percent of the overall population in the United States. (Aaron Endy)

Both Etsitty and Cole believe that the issue of suicide, which is especially prevalent for Native Americans between the ages of 15 to 24, is often a result of societal and cultural pressures.

“That’s the kind of age range when people are trying to figure out who they are,” Cole said.

Etsitty said there is a lot of transition that happens during those years, with high school, college and trying to find work.

Etsitty and Cole also both said simply learning about Native American culture would be a real benefit and a step toward addressing these and other important issues facing Native Americans.

“We don’t want to be ignored anymore,” Benally said.

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