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Is an urban legend encouraging South Dakota Sioux teens to take their own lives?
Reports are surfacing that a horror named Walking Sam is driving teens to their deaths. But the reality is much more complicated.
The Bogeyman. Tall Man. The Gentlemen. The Babadook. Slender Man.
And now, Walking Sam.
He has haunted us in various fictional forms for centuries, but now the spectral figure of traditional folklore and modern urban legends may be having a very real impact on teens’ lives. An increasing number of suicides are occurring on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and they’re being attributed to Walking Sam.
Since December, a staggering 103 suicide attempts have occurred on the reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota sub-tribe of Sioux Native Americans. Out of these attempts, nine people between the ages of 12 and 24 have died. One witness account alleges that the number of attempted suicides was as high as 241 over a three-month period.
In February, Poor Bear said, a parent came to him with an alarming Facebook post: Nooses hanging in trees near Porcupine, a community of about 1,000 people. Tribal police later took down four nooses, apparently left there as an invitation, but could not determine who was responsible.
The New York Times elaborated on this incident, noting that local pastor John Two Bulls was “tipped off to a group suicide planned in a wooded area outside the town of Pine Ridge.” After racing to the location, he and other adults found and removed the nooses and counseled teenagers who had assembled at the spot before anyone could make an attempt.
The Associated Press also reported that teachers recently “foiled a plan by several high school girls to take their lives simultaneously.”
Multiple reports on the rash of suicide attempts have cited folkloric elements as contributing factors in these incidents. One reservation minister, Chris Carey, described the presence of a “Tall Man spirit” to the Times who is “appearing to these kids and telling them to kill themselves.” Oglala Sioux tribe president John Yellow Bird Steele stated that many Sioux believed in entities like a “suicide spirit similar to the Slender Man.”
Another minister, Rev. Ron Hutchcraft, who is based out of Arkansas, described the phenomenon to the Mission Network News as “the shadow people” or “the dark people:”
“There are spirit beings–demonic beings–that are stalking the reservation and convincing young people that they are worth nothing…and [that have] started this ‘cloud of death’ over the reservation.”
Walking Sam isn’t a new phenomenon. Last year, redditor u/rembim9 posted to the subreddit r/Icandrawthat requesting an image of what they described as “Walking Sam,” a Slender Man counterpart who loomed over their stay at Pine Ridge:
On my latest trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I kept hearing stories of this man who would roam the streets at night. Some locals claimed to see him, but I can not find anything anywhere on this man. Here are some of the details on this guy. Kind of scary.
“People believe he is sent on this earth as punishment and is just looking for company.”
U/rembim9 also listed many of Walking Sam’s purported physical attributes. According to his description, the specter is “7 feet tall,” has a lean figure, has no mouth, and carries the bodies of Lakota men and women off his arms (“weird I know”). “People believe he is sent on this earth as punishment and is just looking for company,” he wrote.
Of course, the descriptions of Walking Sam are rooted in centuries-old mythology and folklore. The ring of nooses in the forest, for instance, hearken back to scenes from found-footage films like the Blair Witch Project, while the anonymous encouragement to follow through on the attempts bears an eerie inverse resemblance to Japan’s notorious “suicide forest,” Aokigahara, which is littered with signs and messages begging those who go there not to complete the attempt. The “shadow people” are also part of a longstanding urban legend.
The most obvious source for the “tall man” is the bogeyman, who is often described as a spectral, lanky figure in black who steals bad children away. The bogeyman has found a popular recent revitalization in Slender Man, a creature so compelling that last year several teens committed assault, reportedly due to the influence of the Slender Man mythos.
When Slender Man, or Slendy, was created in 2008, his popularity immediately gave rise to a number of spin-off mythical figures, including the fabricated legend of the german “Der Großman” and variations of the “Tall Man,” who was first introduced in 1979’s Phantasm.
But long before any of this, the people of the Dakota and Lakota have exchanged stories about Walking Sam. In these tales, he goes by multiple names, including “Stovepipe Hat Bigfoot” and simply “Big Man.” Here’s an account of him by Oglala Lakota Medicine Man Pete Catches, taken from Peter Mathiessen’s 1983 book about Pine Ridge, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse:
There is your Big man standing there, ever waiting, ever present, like the coming of a new day… He is both spirit and real being, but he can also glide through the forest, like a moose with big antlers, as though the trees weren’t there… I know him as my brother… I want him to touch me, just a touch, a blessing, something I could bring home to my sons and grandchildren, that I was there, that I approached him, and he touched me.
Many in the community have linked reported appearances of Walking Sam to teens taking their own lives. In 2009, Walking Sam was alleged to have been spotted in the Pine Ridge community, which coincided with an occurrence of multiple teenage suicides. Blogger Mike Crowley described attending a meeting of the tribal council at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, where a tribeswoman asked government officials for help dealing with Walking Sam:
[O]ne local woman, who left before I could talk with her personally, asked Washington for help dealing with 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 that the police have not been able to protect the community from him. She described him as a bad spirit. She wanted help from Washington with foot patrols for the tribal communities to protect them from Walking Sam.
Later, Crowley describes researching Walking Sam at a local bookstore whose clerk cautioned him to be wary:
[S]he advised me that there really are bad spirits out there on the reservation, and you need to be careful. She said that if you go looking for them, you might just find them.
The anthropological roots of Walking Sam play a far more complex role than just functioning as spooky stories. Pete Catches’ description of “Big Man” makes the spirit sound more like a protector of the forest than a god of death—part terror, part Totoro. As a supernatural entity, he is tied to the land, and the land has a very real impact on the lives of the Lakota.
Writing of spending a week at Pine Ridge, Catholic chaplain Jeff Nixa praised “the unseen yet vibrant Lakota spirituality all around us.”
“Their sacred, earth-honoring ways, inextricably connected with nature and all living creatures, reach far beyond humans and human institutions,” he wrote.
Although some of the traditional seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota have fallen out of favor, numerous others, such as the vision quest, continue to be practiced, along with the Ghost Dance, a popular 19th-century hybrid of the traditional circle dance.
After Lakota Sioux began practicing the Ghost Dance, members of the U.S. cavalry attempted to quell the practice in a series of events that culminated in the events at Wounded Knee, which is part of Pine Ridge.
During the 1890 battle at Wounded Knee, U.S. soldiers gunned down hundreds of unarmed members of the Lakota Sioux tribe, primarily women and children. A century later, Wounded Knee was the site of a 1973 protest that led to a months-long standoff between American Indian activists and law enforcement.
Speaking to Truthout about the suicides, Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart described the area’s tragic historical significance as a burden still carried by those living there today:
“Historical trauma is cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma. Native Americans have, for over 500 years, endured physical, emotional, social and spiritual genocide from European and American colonialist policy.”
For the Lakota, these beliefs aren’t just a result of a whimsical belief in the supernatural. They’re a way for members of the tribe to feel a connection to the land, as well as to their own tragic history. The spirituality of Pine Ridge is as political as it is mystical, and politics have played a more direct role in the fate of Pine Ridge than perhaps anywhere else in North America.
It’s also important to note the economic circumstances of those in Oglala Lakota County, which is the second-poorest county in the U.S. A 2015 government survey estimated that 2,000 households in the Oglala Lakota tribe earned less than 30 percent of the national median—just $3,500 annually. Sixty percent of the reservation’s 30,000 residents live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is 80 to 90 percent.
Pine Ridge encompasses a portion of the famous South Dakota Badlands. Only 211 of the reservation’s acrid 3,500 square miles are farmable, and irrigation is hard to come by, as is clean water. Though the land produces plenty of agriculture, most of it is leased by the government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to farmers who live off of the reservation. In 2012, this resulted in less than a third of a $90 million Pine Ridge crop actually going to the residents of Pine Ridge.
The impact of decades of this redirection of wealth has left the area with no viable economic structure and with devastating poverty levels. With tiny border towns existing solely to sell alcohol to community members, many of whom struggle with alcoholism, most of the financial aid Pine Ridge receives from the government goes directly to areas outside the reservation.
Lakota children are reportedly being placed into foster care at alarmingly high rates, in alleged violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the national average, while rate of sexual assault is two times higher than average. Meanwhile the life expectancy is just 48 years for men and 52 years for women—the lowest rate in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti.
In April 2015, the White House designated Pine Ridge a Promise Zone to help expedite the region’s economic recovery. But Dominique Alan Fenton, a high school English teacher and legal advocate on the reservation, believes the root of the mental health issues in Pine Ride are much uglier: racism.
In a blog post on the recent suicides, Fenton cited numerous firsthand accounts of incidents of hostility or overt harassment by area law officials or non-Native Americans in recent months. In one incident in January, students and teachers from Pine Ridge were doused with beer, subjected to racial slurs, and asked to leave for their own protection while attending a hockey game off the reservation.
Twelve-year-old Santana Janis, the youngest of the nine teens who recently took their own lives, was the victim of such racialized harassment shortly before her death. As reported in the Times, “on an overnight trip to Rapid City over the New Year, a group of girls including Santana overheard a white woman call them ‘filthy Indians’ as they passed through a hotel lobby.”
“Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression,” her grandfather Keith Janis stated.
“Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.”
Additionally, the families of Janis and another teenage girl who committed suicide believe they were each cyberbullied prior to their deaths.
“There are a lot of reasons behind [the suicides],” Poor Bear told the Associated Press. “The bullying at schools, the high unemployment rate. Parents need to discipline the children.”
“Add high-profile examples of racism, the daily unreported microaggressions Native kids face and the structural obstacles that extreme poverty creates, and you start to understand why suicide waves persist,” wrote Fenton.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among Native Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 are nearly three times higher than the national average. One student told the Times that attempts among teens on the reservation are “common.”
That said, the community response to the suicide attempts has been swift and powerful. Last month, Steele declared a state of emergency, and agencies have deployed mental health volunteers to help staff the local hospital. Local students have also organized prayer chains.
Yet as Crowley cautioned, prayer and superstition won’t touch the roots of a complex problem. “[Belief] in “bad spirits” as a causative mechanism for untimely events among the Lakota is strong,” he wrote.
Walking Sam may be just one such explanation that resonates among some of the Lakota for teen suicides… [It] shouldn’t distract the reader from the fact that people on the reservations are distraught… Whether Walking Sam represents Bigfoot, an evil spirit, or is just a manifestation of the fear that people have about losing their loved ones to what seems an incomprehensible type of event, the teen suicides are real.
Meskwaki Nation member Dirk Whitebreast, whose sister died as a result of suicide, has been an advocate for raising awareness and acting rationally rather than relying on superstition. “We need to take warning signs seriously,” he stated to Native News Online in September. “We need to be willing to confront suicide and address it accordingly and without stigma.”
Hopefully, the residents of Pine Ridge will find a way to do this for their troubled teens—so that they can banish the specters of Walking Sam and the ghosts of their traumatic history from their community once and for all.
Photo via tinycactus/Tumblr
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.