An online memorial slideshow for Brent Bearskin Smith, a Santa Rosa teenager who committed suicide on Nov. 13, 2011, tells the story of a somewhat typical teen. The dark-haired and dark-eyed young man wears baggy pants and “Latin Rollers” T-shirts, smiles at car shows, hangs out at barbecues with friends, hugs girls and loads up on food at potlucks.
What’s not so typical are the shots of Smith dancing in traditional Pomo dance attire, an elaborate orange headdress covering his eyes and a wooden flute in his mouth. Taken together, the photos tell a story of a young man caught between two cultures: one that took Smith to the edge of gang violence, and another that connected him to his heritage as a member of the Round Valley Indian Reservation.
And Smith was not alone. “These kids don’t know which way to go; they’re being pulled left and right,” says Agustin Garcia, project coordinator at the Sonoma County Indian Health Project (SCIHP). According to Garcia, Smith’s scenario is all too common—young Native Americans caught between two worlds, feeling they have no place to call their own.
For this reason, SCIHP, with support from the Family Service Agency of Marin, is holding a Gathering of Native Americans (GONA) specifically for Native American youth ages 12 to 17 at the Marin Headlands from Aug. 30–Sep. 2. The GONA curriculum has been applied to numerous events around the country, but the upcoming gathering is the first event of its kind in the Bay Area.
Garcia, himself a member of the Elem band of Pomo in Lake County, calls the GONA a “template” for the four-day ceremony, bringing together Native American youth in the Bay Area and helping them to develop “a sense of belonging.” According to the GONA
training manual, one element
of human growth is addressed each day, beginning with “belonging,” followed by “mastery,” “interdependence” and “generosity.”
The curriculum for the Marin Headlands GONA has been tailored to address specifics of Pomo life, and delves into the history of the area, with the arrival of the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Gold Rush and forced boarding schools run by the U.S. Department of War—and the tragic implications for native cultures in the Bay Area, which were decimated by the imposition of Western cultural economics and values, according to Garcia.
“We live in a society where we’re not seen or even talked about,” he adds. “The version of history we learn in public schools was not written by our own people. There’s such a dark history that nobody wants to discuss.” The goal of the second day of the GONA, “mastery,” is to address this history, specifically in California, where tribes are smaller and entire villages were wiped out overnight by mercenaries like the Humboldt Minutemen.
Those who have studied the issue, like Garcia, trace the high rates of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse among Native American youth to unaddressed trauma, compounded by unpleasant and often abusive experiences in boarding schools and handed down through native families.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska natives aged 15–24, right behind accidents. The suicide rate for American Indian teens and young adults is 2.5 times higher than the national average for the same age group, averaging about 31 per 100,000 in comparison to the national average of 12.2 per 100,000.
The national epidemic has hit home locally with the 2011 suicide of 18-year-old Sam Benzor, followed by Brent Bearskin Smith’s just a few days later. Both were former Elsie Allen students and danced together in a Santa Rosa–based Pomo Indian youth dance troupe.
The final two days of the GONA builds roads toward healing, with youth discussing ways they can develop healthy community connections. According to Dr. Leon Wakefield, director of behavioral health at the Sonoma County Indian Health Project, the community-building element is just one part of a multi-step effort to step up youth services for Native American youth—seven different tribes are represented at SCIHP—in addition to increasing collaboration between counties and developing suicide prevention efforts in what’s called “Indian Country.”
“Our most important thing is to stress prevention,” says Wakefield, “To stress that there’s a place where kids can come to talk about what’s going on in their lives and try to create bonds among the elders, the adults and the kids.”