Urban legends can be creepy, but for the most part, they”re just stories and everyone treats them as such. But to the young people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one legend is not only very real, but is also apparently convincing them to take their own lives.
A string of suicides and suicide attempts have occurred among the Oglala Lakota sub-tribe of the Sioux, which leaders attribute to a persuasive, malevolent spirit that roams the reservation. Tribe elders describe this spirit as “Tall Man Spirit,” but he is known to the Sioux youth as “Walking Sam.”
Since December of 2014, there have been 103 suicide attempts at Pine Ridge and 9 deaths. All were committed by young people between the ages of 12 and 24.
The most horrifying of these attempts occurred last February when a community leader, Pastor John Two Bulls, caught a group of teenagers attempting a mass suicide. They had hung several nooses from the trees so that they could die together. Thankfully they were caught before anything tragic could happen.
Walking Sam is said to be a seven-foot-tall man with long, skinny limbs and no mouth. Also known as “Stovepipe Hat Bigfoot” and “Big Man,” this creature is similar to the popular “Slender Man” archetype in American Internet culture.
Walking Sam is most likely just a manifestation of a bigger evil in the community — poverty. Pine Ridge has for many years struggled with dismal unemployment, which has led to alcoholism and suicide. The life expectancy for men here is below 50 years, which is the lowest in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Racism may be another reason why children on the reservation are turning to suicide. Just a few days before Christmas last year, a 12-year-old Sioux girl named Santana Janis killed herself after she was called “filthy Indian” by a white woman in a hotel lobby. Perhaps “Walking Sam” is not just a legend, but also a mechanism created by the Park Ridge youth to comprehend and deal with the oppression they face every day.