A Native voice of a generation

Spring 2011 Red Cloud Country

At too young an age, Tiana Spotted Thunder learned what it felt like to lose a friend to suicide. In fact, the Red Cloud High School senior has seen many friends pass on: young Native American teenagers—just like her—who could no longer take the pressures, like name calling and bullying, that far too often coincide with growing up.

Instead of turning to a friend or mentor, parent or counselor, they took their own lives. Tiana herself, a remarkable young woman with confidence, a quick wit and a very bright smile, admits that early-on in her high school days, life was tough.

“All at once, I had to deal with a lot of the negative parts of growing up,” she says one afternoon during her lunch hour. “People were being mean to others at school. Things weren’t going well at home. It felt like there was no way out. There was no way to get my voice out…to stop the injustices that surrounded me, that consumed me.”

But on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a community continually rocked by staggering suicide rates among its teenagers, Tiana did find her voice. Sitting in a creative writing class during her junior year at Red Cloud High School, Tiana quietly began to picture a brighter future: not just for herself, but also for those around her. She knew she loved to write, and she knew that it had given her an outlet to shout out to the world how she felt: angry, sad, mad, disgusted…just plain fed up with it all.

“Yes, I was angry,” she says with a smile that makes it all hard to believe. “I was losing people all around me. Writing—and sharing my words—reminded me that I wasn’t alone.”

Tiana would post poems she wrote on Facebook, and she soon developed a strong following of friends from the school and reservation community online. People would often “like” her poems, commenting positively on them, encouraging her to share more.

“Many times I just get a creative ‘burst,’” she says. “I’ll be sitting around and will get an impulse, so I’ll write it in a notebook or type it on my Blackberry and put it on Facebook.”

Within seconds, a new poem can be published online, ready for the rest of the world to reflect, respond, and maybe even apply it to their own lives. Tiana’s talents have not gone unnoticed off the reservation. Last year, Tiana attended Brave New Voices, an international poetry festival sponsored by HBO. After “putting something together really quickly” and submitting it to a contest held by the festival, she was selected to go to Los Angeles and participate in the weeklong event. She’d never stepped foot on a plane before, and certainly had never been so far away from home.

“I felt like a rookie—I didn’t even know what ‘slam poetry’ was,” she recalls. “The event was so emotional…a lot of the performances made you laugh really hard, or cry really hard, or just be really mad because there’s no reason there should be so much hatred in the world. A lot of the poetry was about the injustices we all encounter.”

With all she had seen and learned, and with the support of one of her favorite teachers, Hope Boeve, Tiana returned home from Los Angeles and organized a poetry night at Red Cloud to raise awareness of the need for suicide prevention.

“I wanted to have the poetry night so that people could just get up and express their feelings…because a lot of people my age don’t speak up. They need to be inspired to tell adults what they’re feeling. They need to get what they feel out.”

The event drew a large crowd of friends and family not just from Red Cloud, but also from Pine Ridge High School, Little Wound High School, and as far as the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota—about seven hours away.

“It was a really, really neat evening,” she says, that same bright smile from earlier revealing itself yet again.

Of course it was. It was organized by a really, really neat—and inspiring—young woman.