FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In testimony before Congress, letters to the federal government and press releases, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and his vice president have brought up recent tragedies that have shaken some reservation towns to their cores.
They said eight people killed themselves in communities impacted by the unleashing of toxic waste from a Colorado gold mine into the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation, burdened by the stress of seeing a sacred waterway polluted.
"When you're being abandoned in your great time of need, what do you do? It causes great amount of distress," Begaye said at a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing where he pleaded for more resources from the federal government over the spill.
Some residents in the affected communities were skeptical, wondering whether there's a direct correlation between the mine spill and suicides. Some saw the suggested link as an effort for tribal leaders to score political points on a national stage.
"I'm not really sure how this could be related to the contamination of the river," said Bill Todachennie, vice president of the Navajo Nation's Aneth Chapter in Utah. "Personally, I don't know how you could hook (them) together."
Residents in the region learned something was wrong with the river — a vital source of water for livestock, drinking and crops — through social media, radio reports and by seeing new people around their towns. The Aug. 5 spill took days to reach the reservation.
Farmers wept at the sight of their crops wilting, livestock owners started hauling water from elsewhere to sustain their animals and the tribal utility stopped pulling drinking water from the river.
Begaye responded harshly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and hosted prominent environment advocate Erin Brockovich on a tour of the reservation.
Begaye invoked suicides in a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Oct. 2, asking for a preliminary damage assessment from the mine spill. The agency denied the request.
Begaye also referenced "three suicides in communities that were affected by the Gold King Mine spill" in a mid-September plea to the federal government for mental health and cancer treatment facilities on the reservation.
He told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee of the suicides a day later during a hearing on the impacts of the mine spill.
A spokesman for the president at the time said Begaye was referring to suicides in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez have said the tribe's Department of Health is investigating any connection between the suicides and the mine spill. Neither one responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Messages left at the health department weren't returned.
Between July 1 and Oct. 15, at least 10 people died of suicide in the two police districts that cover communities along the San Juan River, according to Navajo police statistics. Six of those happened after the mine spill.
The statistics also show more than three times as many suicide attempts in those districts.
But the communities also suffer deep hardships like rampant unemployment, poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that are major contributors to high suicide rates — an issue on American Indian reservations nationwide.
The suicide rate for American Indians aged 15 to 24 is more than twice the national rate.
A colleague of Rick Hendy, head of behavioral health at the Utah Navajo Health System, died of suicide in mid-August. While the mine spill no doubt compounded stress in the community, Hendy said, he doubted it was the primary factor of the suicides.
"A contributor? Yes," he said. "It's a contributor just like a myriad other things, family problems, etc."
Local churches responded to the suicides with prayer walks. Students participated in a program about American Indian pride and values, helping one another and leadership. Tribal, county and state agencies sent in counselors and others to help.
The Utah Navajo Health System declared an emergency, freeing up resources for programs, services and staffing. Hendy said his organization got the OK to hire someone dedicated to addressing suicide prevention, substance abuse and healthy lifestyles.
Todachennie said he tries to relay positive things to youth in the community, praise the local high school sports teams and point out successes of students who go to college and become doctors and engineers.
"Those are the things I want people to be proud of," he said. "Sadly enough, those are the things we don't express."
Meanwhile, community leaders are engaging in sometimes difficult discussions about suicide, a topic that's a taboo among the most traditional Navajos. Such talk of death and other life-threatening illnesses can be seen as an invitation to bring it upon one's self or family.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Nate Brown said he got a call from a man shortly after the mine spill who told him he cried at the sight of the river and was contemplating suicide because of a lot of different factors.
"Talk to your kids, have family evening dinners again," Brown said. "Let's skip casino night and come back home and sit down and have this conversation about who we are as a people. We have overcome so much adversity in the past.
"The thing is: It's OK to talk about suicide and how to prevent it, what's going on," he said.