In wake of teen suicides, Apache journey to Florida to learn ancestors' story of sacrifice

ST. AUGUSTINE — In the front of the charter bus, the two tribal elders were dozing. They had flown in from their New Mexico reservation late the night before and risen early to take the kids on this field trip. They had to save their strength to share their story.

The teenagers crowded the back of the bus, pressed against the wide windows, taking pictures: a palm tree, a giant golf ball, a statue of Mickey Mouse. "Where's the beach?" a boy in a white cowboy hat kept asking. "I want to go to the beach."

Most of the young Apache had never been to a beach, flown on a plane or seen anywhere as flat as Florida. They grew up on 700 square miles of mountains and Ponderosa pines, in FEMA trailers and cramped government houses.

The teenagers had come to Orlando for a mental health conference that would begin the next day. The elders had made them bring their ribbon shirts and camp dresses. But on this steamy July morning as the bus rumbled onto the interstate, the students had no idea where they were headed.

"Are we there yet?" asked the boy in the cowboy hat. His name is Tralin Enjady and he's 12. "Where are we going?"

The counselors wouldn't answer. They knew this journey was going to be hard.

But if these young Apache could confront their past, if they could walk in the strained steps of their ancestors and feel the thick walls of the fort closing in, maybe they'd feel some pride and the elders wouldn't have to bury any more kids.

In the fall of 2010, in a span of six months, eight teenagers on the Mescalero reservation committed suicide.

The tribe has about 5,000 members and one school with 500 students. All of the teenagers on the charter bus knew a suicide victim: a 14-year-old cousin who hanged himself from his bunk bed, a 15-year-old girl who committed the same desperate act behind her aunt's house.

"I lost so many friends, one after another. I spent my junior year going to funerals," said Whitney Balderrama, 19. "They even had a blessing at our school in case an evil spirit was going through it."

The tribal government declared a state of emergency. What would make all these kids take their lives in such a short time? Most of them came from caring families. Investigators found they hadn't been drinking or using drugs. There was no suicide pact.

Native leaders called in mental health expert Greg Powers, who once ran the reservation's hospital and had since retired to Gulfport in Pinellas County. He helped the Apache apply for a federal grant to receive intensive counseling and suicide prevention services.

The $6 million, six-year grant includes funds for an equine therapy program, teacher training and travel. It paid for the trip to the Orlando conference, where the kids would present videos about reservation life. And it enabled the Apache to bring along Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico.

She believes the suicides stem, in part, from something she calls historical trauma.

"Generations of genocide, colonization, imprisonment, all of that trauma trickles down and leads to other issues," said Braveheart, who has studied and written about the issue for more than 20 years.

When the government systematically attacks a culture — when it uproots people, murders or jails them and steals their land — the disruption ripples through generations. Examples include Holocaust survivors, Japanese-Americans who were held in internment camps — and American Indians, Braveheart said.

"It's empowering for people to know what happened in the past," she said. "If they can understand where their issues are coming from, they have less self-blame and are less likely to succumb to substance abuse, anger and self-destruction."

Of course, American Indians battle other, current issues: isolation, unemployment, poverty. Some of the Apache don't own cars, so they seldom leave the reservation. Many struggle to find even minimum-wage jobs. More than 70 percent qualify for Medicaid — and only 5 percent graduate from high school.

What's left of their culture is fading fast: These teenagers don't know their native language or how to ride a horse. But through computers and cable TV, they know all about hip-hop and hot rods, baggy jeans and bling, things they want to be a part of. But nothing that is a part of them.

"All of those factors, combined with how these kids are affected by their history, can lead to deep depression and despair," said Powers.

Some of the young Apache had heard of their ancestor Geronimo, how he was hated and imprisoned, his family hauled away. But none knew about the boxcars and boarding school. Or that towering shell fort in Florida.

• • •

After two hours on the bus, the teenagers tumbled out onto a narrow sidewalk in St. Augustine and found themselves surrounded by T-shirt shops.

"Where are we?" asked Tralin, the boy in the cowboy hat. "Where are we going?"

Counselors led the kids across the road to a winding path that climbed above the shore. In front of them loomed a 17th century fort with four diamond-shaped bastions jutting into the bay.

Tralin looked down at foamy waves lapping the sand. "Look at all that water!" he cried. "Is that the beach?"

A park ranger approached the 25 Apache and welcomed them to Castillo de San Marcos. "I know this will be controversial for some Native Americans, especially those of you who had ancestors here," said the ranger, Jill Jaworski.

"But I want you all to feel free to wander through the rooms. And know that we're installing new exhibits soon, ones that include your perspective. We're even going to enclose that Apache fire spirit in glass."

The teenagers didn't seem to hear. They were too busy taking pictures of the beach below. The elders looked at each other. What was an Apache fire spirit?

The ranger led them through a gate, past a gift shop, into the grassy center of the fort. "Is there a place they can change?" asked elder Bonna Dell Ortega, 68. She wanted the teenagers to wear their native dress so they would feel more connected to the history they were about to hear.

So the young Apache split off into the bathrooms, where the boys took off their backward baseball caps and pulled on long-sleeved shirts rimmed with ribbons. The girls pulled floor-length satin skirts over their jeans. Trinity Enjady, 14, forgot her moccasins; her Chuck Taylor high-tops flapped beneath her ceremonial dress.

"This way," said a counselor. "The elders are waiting."

In a corner of the fort, next to the powder magazine, an arched entry opened into a dark, vaulted room. There was no sign outside; the National Park Service map doesn't name this place. When someone asked the ranger, she said, "We just call it the Indian room."

The teenagers filed inside silently, staring at the rough walls made of coquina shells, peering through the metal bars striping the windows. It was hot in there, especially in their long sleeves and skirts.

"Please join hands," said Ortega. "Our people who came here always prayed to their creator, so we're going to open with our Apache prayer."

• • •

In 1886 U.S. troops rounded up the Apache and removed them from their native land in New Mexico.

"Our people were the last ones. Geronimo was their leader," Ortega said. He eluded capture for years, moving his people among the mountains. But the Army kept sending more soldiers and killing more Apache. "Finally," Ortega said, "he thought it would be best if he gave up. He wasn't captured. He surrendered, so his people could survive."

Troops forced 506 Apache into boxcars, mostly women and children. "Packed them in like cattle …," said Ortega, whose great-grandfather was on the train. "They didn't know where they were going. And whenever they stopped, they were looked at as animals in a cage."

The train took them all the way to Florida, so they wouldn't be tempted to run home. Geronimo and 14 of his men were imprisoned at Fort Pickens in Pensacola. The rest "were brought here, to this fort, and kept in this very room," said Ortega. "Think of how hot this is; they had no air-conditioning or bathrooms. Can you imagine living here? We are all descendants of people who suffered here."

One of the counselors held her hands to her face. The other elder wiped her eyes. But the teenagers had moved to the edge of the stuffy room and were standing in the doorway. Trinity was leaning against the wall, looking bored. Andrew Tsosie, 14, was texting.

"We are a strong people. We endured so much. Be proud of your past, and who you are," Ortega said. "Know where you came from and what others sacrificed for you."

The young Apache didn't seem to be listening when the elder talked about how, finally, guards let the prisoners move to the fort's top wall and erect makeshift teepees overlooking the water. They seemed unmoved when she explained that their ancestors built fires to try to make the Army rations taste more familiar.

"After two years, they put our people back on a train to take them to a fort out West," Ortega said. "But some of them didn't make it; 24 died here, of tuberculosis."

She began to talk about the children, and the teenagers looked up from the doorway. Andrew put down his phone.

"Guards ripped the children from their parents and sent them on another train, to Pennsylvania, to the Carlisle school for Indians, where they had to learn how to live in the white man's world."

The other elder, Dorene Fernando, 67, stood up and forced a slight smile. "But their prayers and their faith helped them, and if they hadn't held on, we wouldn't be here today," she said. "I tell you, their spirits are still here, making us stronger."

When the teens ran to change out of their ceremonial outfits, one of the counselors stayed behind in the arched room. Clay Geronimo, 24, left the reservation to go to college, then returned to work in the new equine therapy program. He had noticed something on the side wall. He leaned in and saw that someone had carved a face of a man wearing a pointed hat.

"A crown dancer," gasped Geronimo, great-great-grandson of the leader. The outline was chiseled deep into the wall. The ranger had called the figure a fire spirit, but Geronimo knew it symbolized strength. It must have been a blessing, encouraging the Apache inmates to hold on.

"That took a long time," said Geronimo. He reached out and placed his right palm on the rough wall, beside the message from his ancestors, and whispered, "Thank you."

• • •

In the front of the charter bus, the two tribal elders were dozing.

The teenagers in the back were quiet. No one was taking pictures. "That made me sad," said Joe Little-Youngman, 15. "I kept thinking, what if my dad had been there? But it was also kind of exciting, I mean, that they didn't die there."

Trinity said she had never heard that part of her heritage. "It sounded like the Holocaust," she said. "I didn't know that happened to our people, too."

When the bus stopped outside a seafood restaurant, across the street from the Atlantic, all of the adults headed inside. But the teenagers lingered, looking longingly at the waves. "That's the beach, isn't it?" Tralin asked. "I want to go to the beach."

Geronimo told the other counselors he wasn't hungry, that he would take the teens to see the water.

So there on the shore near where their ancestors had suffered, on the sand those prisoners never got to tread, the young Apache kicked off their Converse, rolled up their Wranglers and, laughing, waded into the waves.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

In wake of teen suicides, Apache journey to Florida to learn ancestors' story of sacrifice 08/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, December 22, 2013 12:44am]

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