Suicide and Cultural Revitalization

February 28, 2015
By: 
Elsie Dennis

Suicide is a world-wide public health issue. In the United States, Native American families experience the highest rate of teen suicide of any ethnic population. Suicide rates are more than double for Native Americans. Suicide is the second leading cause of death, 2.5 times the national rate, for American Indian (AI) /Alaska Native (AN) youth ages 15-24.

For AI/AN youth ages 12-20, violence accounts for 75 percent of deaths, including suicide, homicide, and intentional injuries. More females (22 percent) than males (12 percent) were reported to have attempted suicide. At least 5 percent had serious thoughts of suicide during the past year.

These statistics repeat throughout indigenous populations:

  • In Canada, the leading causes of death for First Nations youth in the year 2000 were suicide and self-inflicted injuries. Twenty-four percent of all deaths among 15-24 olds are deaths by suicide. Two to three times more often boys die by suicide than girls. First Nations youth die by suicide about 5-6 times more often than non-indigenous youth. For Inuit youth, the suicide rate is 11 times the national average, among the highest rate in the world.
  • In New Zealand, the suicide rate for Māori youth is more than 2.5 times higher than for non-Māori youth. In 2011, the Māori youth suicide rate was 36.4 per 100,000 in the Māori youth populations.
  • In Australia, suicide was not known among the aboriginal people prior to colonization. Now, the rate of aboriginal youth suicide is the world’s highest, except for Greenland.  Statistics for 2011 show that the percentage of youth from ages 10 to 24 who were aboriginal and died by suicide as at 80 percent.  In that same category in 1991 the figure was 10 percent.  The age for suicide is dropping; more aboriginal children are attempting suicide. Ideation of suicide can start as early as 8 or 9 years old.

These statistics demand our attention as people of God who have pledged via our Baptismal Covenant “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves,” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

The causes of suicide can be viewed as a result of historical trauma and living conditions, and due to mental health concerns.

Historically, native people have been enslaved and forcibly relocated (the Trail of Tears and the Navajo Long Walk); lost their lands; had their children taken away to boarding schools; have been raped, punished for speaking their languages and have had their cultural practices outlawed; they have fallen ill to and died from diseases they had not been exposed to before; and they have been killed individually in beatings and in massacres.

Children removed from their family and traditions, their land and language, did not learn how to be parents themselves. Some boarding schools were emotionally cold and distant institutions where the focus was on assimilation into mainstream culture, allegedly saving the person by “killing the Indian” inside that person.

Loss of language, of ties to families and the land, of culture and traditions created disconnect.

A second cause is environmental. Reservations can often be remote and removed from being strong economic centers. Without jobs, some reservations report up to 80 percent unemployment, where there is little financial security. Some reservation homes are in poor condition without adequate room for families, without running water and electricity, even in 2014.

With little hope for a future, and low high school graduation rates, some native youth turn to drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and gang violence for diversion and self-medication.

Mental illness, brain disorders, neurochemical imbalances are the third reason for native youth suicides. In mainstream society, mental illness and suicide have stigmas associated with them. Mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions, needs to be diagnosed and care prescribed. Afraid of being labeled or ridiculed, people often don’t seek medical assistance and/or counseling.

Healing can come through helping native children and youth reconnect with their culture, language, and traditions. Language programs and cultural revitalization are ways for native children to learn about their people and traditions.

Among these programs are projects to help children and others learn how to bead, make regalia – including moccasins, ribbon shirts, and jingle dresses – how to sing traditional songs, and to make and use hand-drums. In addition, tribes like the Poarch Creek in Alabama have classes for their youth to learn traditional dances. Often young people are called upon to perform at native gatherings. The Diocese of Eastern Oregon invited a native dance group to perform at their recent diocesan convention in October in Pendleton, Oregon. Young native people from the Diocese of Idaho have performed at the Province VIII Indigenous Network WinterTalk in Reno, Nevada. This same group did a sign language presentation of The Lord’s Prayer at the 2012 General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Pride in their heritage, seeing the value in their people’s languages and traditions and connecting children and teens to their culture creates good and healthy emotions and outlook. Youth learn that they come from a long history of strength and knowledge, and that their ancestors are with them through their values and stories. Families, youth and elders become better connected. Elders can teach and lead the children in language learning and cultural teachings.

Many tribes also have museums and cultural centers for their children, youth, and the public to visit. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla invited participants from the Diocese of Eastern Oregon diocesan convention to tour their Tamástslikt Cultural Institute to see the storyline museum of history into today. The 2014 national WinterTalk was held on the Confederated Tribes of the Tulalip reservation near Everett, Washington. Delegates also visited the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve, and listened to traditional story telling.

Parishes and missions can become partners with nearby tribes by providing space for cultural classes, providing safe places for students to do homework and take tests, offering after-school care and snacks, and inviting cultural groups to participate in sharing their culture. At the St. Matthew/San Mateo Church in Auburn, Washington, the Perupecha, indigenous people from Mexico, are coordinating and leading cultural celebrations, such as “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and “Las Posadas.” Often the young people are in the dance groups, and help make and serve traditional foods.

For more information, contact Sarah Eagle Heart, Indigenous Missioner, The Episcopal Church, at seagleheart@episcopalchurch.org.

Perspectives shared on this blog are from the personal experience of Indigenous Peoples in an effort to raise awareness.