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'Stuck Between Two Worlds'

Tribal Youth Ravaged by Violence, Drug Abuse, Depression

Culture: Native Americans from 12-20 years old are 58% more likely to be crime victims than whites and blacks. Such teens commit suicide at twice the rate of their non-Indian counterparts.


FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. — Yvonne Kee-Billison lay in a hospital bed, exhausted but elated after giving birth to her son. One floor down, doctors worked to save the life of her younger brother.

There had been a fight at a party, over a joint. A gang member stabbed 18-year-old Fernando Kee, a pitcher for the high school baseball team, seven times. As children, Fernando and his assailant had been friends. Now, the line between allies and adversaries blurred.

At 10 p.m. on April 13, 1996, Yvonne's husband climbed the hospital stairs and delivered the news: "Your little brother passed away." As one young life began, another ended.

Kee was one of 67 people killed on the Navajo reservation that year, when a series of gang-related slayings made the remote Indian territory one of the deadliest spots in the country.

Over the next five years, while crime rates fell elsewhere in the United States, the nation's Indian reservations became even more dangerous, particularly for teenagers.

Isolated, impoverished, dispirited--disconnected both from their traditional culture and Western society--American Indian youth have grown increasingly violent, drug-dependent and depressed.

Kee-Billison has seen it all firsthand. When her brother died, she was a Navajo youth counselor, assisting gang members affiliated with the one who killed Fernando. She quit after his death, but returned this year as director of the Fort Defiance Department of Youth and Community Services.

Now, she works to bring hope to Indian youth, in memory of a brother and for the future of a son.

"I really wanted to give up when my brother passed away. It just became a meaningless effort," she says. Today, she adds, "I don't want to take the kids for granted. I think there's a lot of hope."


School shootings, suicide pacts, teen pregnancies, drug overdoses. The signs of youth troubles are seemingly everywhere across America, with a list of familiar factors to blame--from violent video games and television programs to broken homes.

Among the more than 550 federally recognized tribes, adolescents have even more to contend with.

* Indians 12-20 years old are 58% more likely to become crime victims than whites and blacks.

* Indians under 15 are murdered at a rate twice that of white teenagers.

* Indian youth commit suicide at more than twice the rate of non-Indian youth.

* Deaths related to alcohol are more than 10 times higher among Indian teens than those of other races.

* Arrests of Indians under 18 for alcohol-related crimes are twice the national average.

With jobs scarce on reservations, poverty and unemployment levels are the highest in the nation. Alcoholism is an epidemic, and domestic violence is soaring.

Add cultural confusion to the mix, and you've got a generation "stuck between two worlds," says Tom Goodluck, a counselor at the Four Corners Regional Adolescent Treatment Center in Shiprock, N.M.

Located on the northeastern edge of the Navajo reservation, the center treats about 80 Indian teenagers annually for chemical dependency and mental health problems. Most of the patients don't speak Navajo and know little about their culture, Goodluck says.

"I see a lot of young people come in with no spirituality, no belief in a creator," he says. "They don't even know how to pray. These children are hungry for something."

"There is such a sense of hopelessness," adds Cynthia Mala, former executive director of the Indian Affairs Commission in North Dakota, where Indian leaders developed a suicide-prevention plan after a half-dozen teens killed themselves in 1998 on the Standing Rock Reservation.

"For our young people, if the family hasn't taken the time to teach them about what it means to be [Native American], then it gets to be a little bit fuzzy," she says.

Indian youth offer other reasons for turning to crime, alcohol and drugs: isolation and sheer boredom. With most reservations hundreds of miles from big cities, kids have little to do. There are no movie theaters or video arcades nearby, few recreational escapes.

"The teenagers are really bored with things," says Crystal, a Navajo high school senior.

Crystal, who asked that her last name not be published, went to family court four years ago after her father attacked her in a drunken rage and she fought back. After spending 12 days in juvenile detention and being threatened with more jail time, Crystal straightened up. Some of her friends weren't so lucky.

"Most of my friends, now they all have kids," says the teen, who hopes to study architecture in college. "They need to get activities here. They need to come out here and ask us."

Some steps have been taken to address the youth crisis. In 1997, the FBI created an Office of Indian Country Investigations and moved 30 agents to bureaus near the reservations most in need of additional resources.

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