Teens speak about scars of cutting and branding

By Lauren Donovan
Mclaughlin, South Dakota (AP) December 2010

This is a story about tales being told at Standing Rock in quiet voices by people willing to share the deepest pain and darkest shame in their lives. They hope their talk is loud enough to be heard across the reservation and beyond.

John Foster was 14 when he woke up with a raw and burning spot on his back after being passed out drunk. Someone had heated the flat side of a knife over a glowing red kitchen stove and seared a brand into his tender flesh.

"It was ugly and hurting," said Foster, now 16 and a freshman at McLaughlin High School. He doesn't remember much about the night it happened. "I think it was an adult who did that to me," he said.

Samantha Cosay, 18, has thin scars like the cross ties in a railroad track where she cut the inside of her left arm over and over and over with a razor blade.

"You have to be in the mind of that person to understand cutting," she said. "When I was watching the blood, it calmed me down."

Cutting and branding - different words for sorrow and desperation - are not everyday, every-kid behaviors among these children of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

But they are common enough.

And they are understood to be signs of the same sorrow and desperation that underlie an epidemic of teen suicide on the reservation.

The McLaughlin School Board decided it couldn't look away from its kids in trouble.

Instead it looked the problem straight in the eye and agreed to participate in an Indian Health Services GoodHealth TV project.

It budgeted money for school students to create two public health videos that will "premiere" at the school and on the GoodHealth system in IHS health centers around the country.

The students helped write the script and are the actors. KAT Productions, of Bismarck, did the visuals, sound and editing earlier this fall.

The three-minute videos on cutting and branding are unflinching and disturbing.

The students are proud of their work and hope it makes a difference.

"This issue is real," said Hanna White Bull, a senior. "It's opened a lot of people's eyes. No one was talking about cutting."

The cutting video is of a young girl, with a tear-streaked face, alone in her bathroom, cutting a thin bloody track across the inside of her arm. At that same moment, her mom at the grocery store, her friends at school, her coach in the school gym, her dad walking down the street feel pain and look down to see a bloody track appear on their own arm.

"When you cut, you feel like it's just you. I hope this helps kids know it doesn't revolve around you, everyone around you will be affected," Cosay said.

In her life, her parents checked her into the hospital on three occasions, which she said made her feel worse and more isolated. It is only at this point in her story that she breaks down and tears fill her eyes and fall down her cheeks.

"I wanted them to give me space and leave me alone. I wanted them to sit down and talk and listen to me," she said.

Cosay said she's gradually stopped cutting herself. "What works for me is listening to music and piecing my thoughts together. I rest, just settle down," she said.

Kelsey Mutchler, 17, also a McLaughlin senior, cut herself once after two female cousins hanged themselves, one in 2008 and one in 2009.

Her cousins had problems and had been branded. One was on probation and "feeling lost and stuck on the reservation," Mutchler said. Their parents were drinking and not getting along.

At the time she cut herself, she was depressed and angry. She told her parents what she had done to herself and found other ways to cope.

Dana Otter Robe, 18, portrays the young, lonely cutter in the video, though she has never done it to herself.

She has felt sorrow.

Her baby daughter died last year of sudden infant death syndrome at the age of 4 months.

"I knew I had to keep myself positive and stay busy with sports and school. I didn't do drugs, alcohol, cutting, anything. I want to graduate and go to college and show other kids it's not that hard," she said.

The brand on Foster's back where he pulls up his blue T-shirt to his shoulder blades has faded with time, though it will always be there. He's fortunate that it was never infected, like happens to some kids who end up with swollen angry-looking scar tissue that disfigures them for life.

He said the video on branding makes sense to him. It depicts a carload of kids, driving and partying, and ending up drinking at a house where no parents are around. One girl is urged, "You want to be like us, don't you?" and then there's her scream when the hot knife is pressed into her skin.

That's how it likely happened to him at a time when both his parents were in jail. Now, Foster thinks branding is dumb, but "sometimes I got mad at my parents because they didn't stay home with me most of the time. They were out drinking."

This tall, shy boy lives with his grandmother now.

Donna Archambault, an employee of the McLaughlin school, is raising her grandson, Adam Weasel. Her own son, George, was into branding and hung himself when he was 20.

She says she was an alcoholic mother, never there for her kids.

“When he was laying there in his casket, I thought of all the things I didn't do for him,” she said.

Her two daughters tried to commit suicide. Archambault said she believes branding is an act of "trying to burn something away. What can we do to stop suicide? It can happen to anybody," she says.

Velia Salas, of McLaughlin, teaches the Lakota language to elementary students. Her son, Dakota, committed suicide when he was 14 years old. He'd never cut himself or been branded, she said.

She said she grew up in an alcoholic home and finally put alcohol away herself when she was in her 30s.

"My philosophy is we need to deal with the drug and alcohol addiction of our families. I'm talking about people constantly drinking and drugging and not taking care of the kids," she said.

She said her son's suicide was the most humbling experience of her life. "I was totally exposed. There was nowhere to hide," she said.

Trace Harrison, a senior, was in the branding video because he believes he has to help younger kids make better choices.

"I have friends who have done it, but I don't get involved in that lifestyle. I think the people you hang out with are the people you end up like," he said.

McLaughlin's school superintendent Kevin Coles wasn't available for an interview, but he said in a prepared statement that the district recognizes that some students self abuse themselves and in doing so, impact all students and the school's ability to give them a good education.

He said good health program gives students healthy, positive messages. "Now, some of them are from our own students," he said. Along with their shock value, both videos offer hope and advice.

Student teacher Allyson Two Bears started at McLaughlin while the filming was going on. She took a role as a doctor who sees the girl who was branded and offers practical advice about better choices and finding someone to talk to.

In real life, she feels unprepared to be that someone.

"It's overwhelming that kids are dealing with these issues and to think that you are going to be that person that they talk to," she said. "With suicide, there's always another child and another child and another child. I don't know how many in the last years, dozens," she said.

The last - and she would point out the least important  - voice is McLaughlin High School science teacher Harriet Howe, who's been teaching on Standing Rock for four years and coordinated the video project, which was open to any student who wanted to participate.

Howe says branding is most troubling because it involves older people preying on younger children and because there's a nasty sadistic edge to it. She has come to understand cutting as an abusive coping behavior that, for all its repulsiveness, most often doesn't escalate.

The videos are already bringing awareness and discussion to the school and the community.

"A lot of people didn't realize these behaviors are happening," she said.

The students are not done talking.

They're planning additional videos for GoodHealth on topics of bullying, suicide and truancy.

Otter Robe, still grieving the loss of her baby but determined to make a future, said she hopes the messages from Standing Rock are like far-reaching arrows shot from a taut bow.

"Kids all over are struggling like we are here on the reservation," she said.