If there is one constant in every human society in the world, is that teenage years are never easy. That’s what they call it ‘Adolescence’.
For teenagers living in Native American reservations though, on top of all the usual growing pains you and I got to experience, there’s the dealing with endemic problems which have nothing to do with hormones on overdrive, or your first awkward dealings with the opposite sex: Poverty, unemployment, deficient schools, domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse, etc; but above all, being part of a culture that has always been relegated and/or denigrated by the usurpers of their land.
Which is why it’s not surprising that suicide inside these reservations has been an alarming problem for several decades, especially among the younger generations. By “alarming” I mean that for Native American youths, the suicide rate is more than twice the national average for other ethnic groups.
Alas, continuity brings forth familiarity –even when it comes to the death of children by their own hand; so it took a preoccupying recent spike in the number of suicides registered inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota –at least 9 deaths of youths aged between 12 to 24 years old since last December– for the rest of the world to take notice. One of those tragic fatalities was Santana Janis, a 12-year-old Lakota girl who hanged herself last winter inside a small, unheated building, next to the two-bedroom trailer where she lived with as many as a dozen siblings and cousins under the care of Earl Tall, his grandfather.
Death by suffocation is one of the most common forms of suicide inside the Native reservations.
Back in May when I read the New York Times article about Santana’s death, and the worry of the Pine Ridge authorities over this surge in suicides, there was something which caught my attention: In trying to find out whether cyber bullying –the novel form of digital harassment that actually makes me glad the Internet wasn’t around in the 1980s– had been a factor behind these teens’ fatal decision, family members and officials discovered an unsettling clue… pointing toward Slenderman.
If you’re a regular visitor to Mysterious Universe or other Fortean blogs, then you’re probably aware of how this shadowy figure has slowly sprung his tentacles from the obscure forums of the Something Awful comedy website, to more visible platforms inside the web and other forms of pop culture media. There’s no denying the atavistic form of Slenderman –with his faceless visage, black attire and mutating limbs– has all the archetypical characteristics necessary to personify our instinctual fear of the dark, which stubbornly clings in the cavernous recess of our psyche, long after we’ve become (fairly) convinced there are no monsters under our bedroom or hiding inside our closet (I still bolt the damn doors shut with a lock, just to be sure). My Daily Grail colleague, Ian “Cat” Vincent, has written several in-depth pieces about Slenderman, which I highly recommend.
But the creepy avatar took a much more sinister and serious spin last year, when news broke about two teenage girls from southeastern Wisconsin had one of their ‘friends’ deep into the woods, stabbed her 19 times (!), and left her for dead. The heinous crime, the teens confessed to the authorities once their victim miraculously managed to pull herself out of the forest, had been planned as a ritual sacrifice to win the favor of Slenderman, with which they had acquired a disturbing obsession. Whether this will be successfully used by their legal defense as a way to plead a lack of responsibility for their actions, remains to be seen.
Getting back to Santana and the Pine Ridge suicides, the Slenderman connection was established by the authorities looking into these cases, when they found that at least one of the kids who took its own life had been influenced by it:
“They call him the Tall Man spirit,” said Chris Carey, a minister who works with youths, some of them suicidal, on the reservation. “He’s appearing to these kids and telling them to kill themselves.”
How the Tall Man “appears” to the teens, at least the way the NYT article seems to imply, is by way of videos encouraging recipients to kill themselves, distributed on Facebook. As it turns out, Santana was also being cyber bullied by her peers through her FB wall, and one of them urged her to take her own life.
“The Tall Man” is also the name of a 2012 thriller movie starring Jessica Biel, which revolves around a shadowy entity said to abduct children…
The New York Times article also mentioned how many Native Americans have a belief in a ‘Suicide Spirit’, but did not elaborate further. Wanting to understand more about this cultural phenomenon, I tried to research the subject online; the information I dug out was scarce –brief mentions here and there in some articles and scientific papers— but was enough to make me understand the Suicide Spirit is a negative, self-destructing force capable of taking possession of individuals who are going through periods of spiritual crisis. Alcoholism and substance abuse are considered to be ‘doorways’ with which to invite the Suicide Spirit, as they weaken the psychological and spiritual defenses of its victims; those who take their own lives are said to become restless ghosts and wander the afterlife in sorrow.
Now doubt, the strong parallels with the Christian views regarding suicide are not a coincidence, but in fact a direct influence of missionary indoctrination among Native American communities –Catholics view suicide as a mortal sin, and those who commit it are forbidden to be buried on hallowed ground.
So, what seems to be happening here is a cultural ‘remix’ between the older myth of the Tall Man/Suicide Spirit which already existed among Native Americans prior to the rise of the World Wide Web, and the newer, more potent icon of Slenderman introduced to these communities through the pervasiveness of new social networks; all this coupled with the ‘copycat’ contagion effect which arises during a cluster of suicides or mass shootings.
But is that all? Since copycats are the expertise of esteemed researcher and Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman, I contacted him via e-mail to discuss the suicides in the Pine Ridge reservation. He quickly pointed out to a post he wrote for Cryptomundo in 2009, referring to sightings of a Bigfoot-like entity reported around the Native American communities surrounding Wounded Knee, the infamous place where in 1890 between 150 and 200 hundred men, women and children were slaughtered by US Army troops.
The inhabitants of these communities referred to this tall, hairy entity as ‘the Big Man’ or ‘Walking Sam’:
The woman, who was elderly but otherwise quite lucid, described Walking Sam as a big man in a tall hat who has appeared around the reservation and caused young people to commit suicides. She said that Walking Sam has been picked up on the police scanners, but the police have not been able to protect the community from him. She described him as a bad spirit. She wanted help from Washington D.C. with foot patrols for the tribal communities to protect them from Walking Sam.
Loren, being part Eastern band Cherokee, concluded on his Cryptomundo article that Walking Sam, aside from its possible cryptozoological nature, had become a symbol of the spiritual crisis responsible for the suicide cluster plaguing these communities, aligning with the beliefs shared to him by other Native American groups (Loren BTW has also written about Slenderman for Paranoia magazine with his wife Jenny Coleman in 2014; her article about the same subject was published by Fortean Times in August of that year, as a companion of Ian “Cat” Vincent’s).
As for me, the peculiar mention of the tall hat as described in the Walking Sam accounts reminded me of Baron Samedi, one of the loas of deities in the Haitian Vodou (Voodoo) religion, which is also depicted wearing a top hat. Samedi is the loa of the dead, and is notorious for his tricksterish ways and outrageous behavior.
A similar character to Samedi, at least in appearance, is shown in the novel Cloud Atlas, in the form of ‘Old Georgie’, a demonic-like entity portrayed In the Wachowskis’ adaptation of the book by the incomparable Hugo Weaving. Old Georgie is shown trying to manipulate the behavior of Zachry Bailey –one of the characters played by Tom Hanks in the movie– by exploiting his fears.
What are we to make of all this, beside the evident merging of different cultural elements through modern tech and globalization? We could view all the things I’ve presented in this article through the lens of Materialism, and at the very least conclude that symbols can become imbued with whatever power we choose to associate them with. A Guy Fawkes mask, a swastika, or even a memetic figure like the Slenderman, these icons remain relevant and ‘alive’ for as long as the culture permits them too.
Could it be something more ‘animating’ the Tall Man, though, making it capable of influencing the behavior of children living inside communities who have suffered from what can only be described as ‘generational trauma’? Our modern paradigm dictates we should discard the possibility of ‘spiritual attacks’ as superstitious nonsense; then again, the said paradigm is always fond of reminding us we are nothing but ‘biological robots’ and that our actions are greatly influenced by the environment we grow up in, the decisions taken by our parents BEFORE we are even born (epigenetics) and even parasites which can ‘hack’ the nervous system of their host and turn them into veritable automatons.
If something as tiny as a fungus spore or a gut bacteria can control the mind of a biological organism, why not something more subtle? Might we not entertain the possibility of the Tall Man as something akin to ‘spiritual malware’ propagating on the reservations through cyber-bullying?
If that is the case, then what kind of ‘firewalls’ could the Pine Ridge elders raise in order to protect their youths, who have always been considered a sacred gift for those communities? On a more recent update on the situation in the reservation, it was announced that the US Department of Education awarded a US$218,000 dollar grant to the Pine Ridge School under the agency’s Project School Emergency Response to Violence (SERV) program:
The grant will fund the “Lakota Way of Life” program, a multi-faceted and holistic approach to healing based on Lakota traditional culture. Five cultural teachers, who are also state-certified in associated professions, such as social work, will each provide one activity per month for 12 months, including hands-on learning and the practice of traditional methods of support and healing, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman Nedra Darling.
In addition, the “Support Alliances” project will provide training to a core group of students on how to facilitate communication amongst their peers, within their families, and with the larger community, she noted.
These are great news –even though 200 grand seems a little low, when compared to other pork-barrel government expenditures. However, taking inspiration to what “Cat” Vincent wrote about how people on the Internet are seeking ways to counter the negative influence of Slenderman, by injecting whimsical playfulness and turn it into Splendorman, may I humbly suggest another strategy which the indigenous communities could try to apply: Find a team of young artists living in the rez who could produce a comic book inspired by Native American cultural traditions, in order to create a superhero-like character powerful enough to defeat the Tall Man/Suicide Spirit. The character could be a young boy or a girl with cool Medicine Man powers –perhaps its name could be Janis, in honor of Santana, the young girl whose death triggered my research– which teenagers vulnerable to cyber bullying and depression could become identified with, while at the same time helping them regain pride for their ancestry and cultural heritage.
If modern culture is what is shaping the form of these self-destructing forces, perhaps it is time to fight fire with fire. Maybe it’s time for Pine Ridge to get the hero it deserves, not the one it needs right now. A Lakota Knight.