Bullying’s Impact on American Indian/Alaskan Native Students

By Robert McNeely

For 16-year-old Coloradas Mangas of the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, the rising teenage suicide rate among American Indians and Alaskan Natives has been all too real.  Several of his friends have taken their lives and he attempted to do the same. It was the only way he knew how to escape the constant bullying at school. For Mangas and his friends, these taunts and racial slurs created a toxic environment that left them with nowhere to turn, and ultimately led to the several senseless, tragic deaths.

But Mangas’ life was spared, and he is now an advocate for bullying prevention among students from his culture. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and schools are emphasizing the importance of year-round efforts to put an end to bullying.

Mangas spoke on Capitol Hill in 2010, pleading with legislators that there needs to be more of a focus on youth suicide prevention education and centers for young American Indians.

According to Mangas, suicide prevention needs to start with educating the youth of this often overlooked population, and a new study backs him up. The study, “Focus on American Indians and Alaskan Natives: The Scourge of Suicides among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth,” shows that bullying has emerged as a contributing factor to the sharp rise in the American Indian and Alaskan Native youth suicide rate.

Coloradas Mangas testifies on Capitol Hill in 2010.

The study says that culturally responsive educators must teach students about empathy and compassion, and establish social norms and rules that respect all students. That way, American Indian and Alaska Native students attending culturally responsive and inclusive schools will feel connected, empowered and better prepared to address discriminatory bullying and harassment.

If not, the crisis will continue.

Children and teenagers of this population are committing suicide at more than three times the rate of the overall youth population. Among American Indian and Alaska Native youth, suicide is the second leading cause of death behind accidental injuries.

“Bullying, along with self-esteem and mental health issues, is a part of a toxic web that contributes to the suicide rate,” says Joel Tannehill, the adult team leader for a student suicide prevention group called the White Swan Dream Makers located on the Yakama Indian Reservation in White Swan, Washington.

Although school officials and the Department of Education offer assistance to schools to combat bullying issues, students continue to be harassed on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately, bullying often happens in the shadows of the school halls. Educators and school officials should be wary of any potential signs of bullying because of how infrequently it is reported by fellow students.

“If we don’t hear about a bullying problem from other students, someone may decide to leave the school and we cannot help them from that point on,” said Principal Yvette Peguero of Oneida Elementary School in Oneida, Wisconsin.

Sioux and Assiniboine students at Fort Peck Middle School in Montana reported on how they saw bullying affecting a student’s emotional state. One 14-year old student said that one instance of bullying may not have a huge emotional toll but if it continues it builds up to where students are eventually overwhelmed.

“Let’s say all your emotions are in a glass of water. When somebody bullies you, dump out a little bit,” the student explained. “Eventually that glass of water is going to be empty and that’s kind of like your self-esteem. You’re going to be empty, so you’re going to try to commit suicide.”

Many tribal communities, including Oneida Elementary School, have adopted the Creating Caring Communities program as a response to reward students for showing respectful behavior between all students. The idea is if a student treats a fellow student respectfully all the time, others will follow suit.

Bullying in schools has become a social justice issue and needs culturally competent educators to help students who are targeted because of their cultural differences. If teachers establish social norms in their classroom where each student receives the same amount of respect, students may model that behavior and treat others with the same amount of respect shown by their teacher.

According to Tannehill, “Teachers and kids are on the same journey together. If teachers are sensitive and understanding among kids, it may lessen the effects of bullies.”