The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is home to the Oglala Lakota tribe and is one of the largest reservations in the United States. Pine Ridge has a long history of hardship, including the Wounded Knee Massacre where hundreds of Lakota Indians were killed. The area is also one of the poorest counties in the country.
On December 12th, tragedy struck the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska with the suicide of a 14-year-old boy. This was followed by the loss of a 15-year-old girl on Christmas Day, a high school cheerleader, and two more teenagers in February and March. It was followed by several other suicide attempts in 2015. The youngest victim was just 12 years old.
The students of the reservation’s high school and middle school were posting messages on Facebook, speculating about who might be the next victim. Some of them had even placed nooses near homes, seemingly encouraging others to follow suit. This caused alarm among parents, who held a meeting to discuss the issue. In response, the U.S. Public Health Service has sent teams of mental health counselors to the reservation to talk to students.
According to the authorities, the situation had become an epidemic. The series of tragic events sparked discussions about the influence of dark supernatural forces in Pine Ridge, leading to the rise of the legend of Walking Sam. Between December 2014 and March 2015, there were 103 suicide attempts, with nine of them being successful. None of the victims were over 25 years old and most died by hanging. This was a major increase compared to previous years. In the absence of clear answers, some people pointed to the existence of a sinister force in Native American folklore.
Children raised in the Lakota culture are familiar with the stories of “suicide spirits,” “stick people,” and “shadow people” who lure young people from their homes at night. With the popularity of Slender Man, these stories may have combined into the figure known as Walking Sam. Walking Sam, also known as “Tall Man” or “Stovepipe Hat Bigfoot,” is said to be a seven-foot-tall figure with eyes but no mouth. He is sometimes depicted wearing a stove-pipe hat and holding the bodies of his previous victims. He lures teenagers by calling to them and persuading them of their worthlessness, encouraging them to commit suicide.
Some believe he targets younger people because they are more susceptible to his tricks. There are varying interpretations of Walking Sam’s identity, some see him as a malicious entity, while others see him as a lost soul seeking companionship. There are also links to the boogeyman folklore and Slender Man legends. Some even see him as a physical manifestation of the pain and trauma faced by the Lakota people. The threat of Walking Sam is taken seriously by the adults of Pine Ridge, who are calling for help from the government to address the devastating effects of the legend.
Videos have emerged of teens explaining how to hang themselves, and authorities have found nooses hanging from trees. Pastors and teachers have stepped in to stop group suicides. Despite the mystery surrounding Walking Sam, it is clear that the teens of Pine Ridge are struggling with mental health issues and require proper care and support in a community plagued by poverty, alcohol abuse, and high school dropout rates. However, the spiritual entity has a rich and complicated anthropological background, beyond just being the subject of eerie stories.
Walking Sam sometimes is seen more as a guardian of nature than a deity of death, possessing both a fearsome and serene presence. This supernatural being is intertwined with the land, which has a tangible impact on the lives of the Lakota people. The legend must have something to do with the series of tragedies back in 2015 because folklore had been identified as a potential factor in the wave of suicide attempts on the reservation.
According to Chris Carey, a minister on the reservation, a “Tall Man spirit” was said to be appearing to young people and urging them to take their own lives. John Yellow Bird Steele, the president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, also acknowledged that many Sioux believe in entities similar to the mythical figure, Slender Man, that could be contributing to the suicides.
A number of individuals in the local community also attributed the surge in teen suicides to the legend of Walking Sam. In 2009, when sightings of Walking Sam were reported, the tribal council held a local meeting at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. There, a member of the tribe requested assistance from government officials in addressing the issue of Walking Sam. Blogger Mike Crowley was present at the meeting and he confirmed this request.
Besides the supernatural, there is a more realistic explanation for this phenomenon. It is clear that the young people of Pine Ridge are struggling with mental health issues and require proper care and support in a community plagued by poverty, alcohol abuse, and high school dropout rates. Walking Sam – exists or not – is calling for help from the government to address the devastating effects of mental ill-health.