“Drinking would shut down my seeing and my hearing and my feeling,” she used to say. “Why would I want to be in the world if I couldn’t touch the world with all of my senses intact?”
? Grandma from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
“In the moral universe all activities, events, and entities are related, and consequently it does not matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys, for the responsibility is always there for it to participate in the continuing creation of reality.”
—Vine Deloria Jr.
In order to participate in this “continuing creation of reality”—the vitality of our communities—we have to be alive. That’s step one. Not just to exist, but to be alive. Present. Engaged. Aware. Intact.
Suicide is not necessarily an isolated event. It is not always, as is often thought, a single incident—a gun, a rope, a jump. These things happen, but these are only part of the story. The spirit of suicide is capable of longevity, of persistence, of gradual distinction. It can be sneaky, subtle, and even subconscious. What I’m talking about is slow death by suicide: the kind of killing that creeps up on us in the form of poor health and bad habits.
Life is not black and white: it is a spectrum. There’s a lot of opportunity to save or revive those in our community who, for whatever reason, are only partially alive—but first we have to understand what that means.
Self-destruction something that we need to acknowledge and stop in order to save ourselves.
In Indigenous North American communities, slow suicide is a common problem, not removable from other prevalent health issues. Alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, diabetes, improper tobacco use, accidents, and other variables and conditions associated with those account for thousands of deaths every year among Native people. Very often, these deaths are not categorized as suicide. But if we shift the paradigm from a non-Western perspective and move toward an all-encompassing, Indigenized approach, we are able to take a step back, look at the whole picture, and clearly see that in many cases these “other” types of death are, in fact, suicide in disguise.
“I don’t think that hanging, taking pills, shooting yourself, is the only form of suicide. Drinking yourself to death is also a form of suicide.”
“Rotting your brain with liquor is a form of suicide because you’ve rotted it so much you don’t have the cognitive ability to raise a child.”
—conversation between two American Indian social service workers, from “Rebuilding our community”: Hearing silenced voices on Aboriginal youth suicide, published in Transcultural Psychiatry, Febraury 2014. Melissa L. Walls, Dane Hautala, Jenna Hurley.
SLOW SUICIDE BY ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE
First, let’s talk about alcohol and drug abuse. We know that these things kill us and cause health problems: that’s obvious. Strictly speaking, alcohol alone is involved in at least one-third of all suicides—people under the influence simply become less capable of making good decisions. Inhibitions aside, sometimes “liquid courage” emboldens folks to become brave enough kill themselves in a solitary suicidal act. But these numbers do not include slow suicide—the kind where alcohol and drugs kill you over time that is infinitely more common within our communities. However, we should acknowledge these deaths as such—as a form of suicide. Bringing this form of self-destruction out of the subconscious to a state of awareness is the first step in becoming well again. When you allow drugs and alcohol into your life on a regular basis, you are killing yourself slowly. It may sound harsh but we have to face that harsh reality in order to change it.
SLOW SUICIDE BY FOOD AND SUGAR
Next, let’s talk about eating and drinking unhealthy stuff. Sometimes our people get uptight when folks talk about our food—“You think you’re too good for our food!” No. Just like when we talk about any other type of suicide—IT’S NOT ABOUT JUDGMENT OR SHAME. It’s just about HEALTH. It’s about LIFE. Nothing else. It’s about predatory economics and history—there’s a reason why we’ve been trained to eat in this unhealthy manner—it didn’t come from us. That said, it’s odd that alcohol and drug abuse are the only two things technically categorized under substance abuse, because unhealthy foods and drinks are also addictive, toxic, and extremely damaging to one’s body—capable of killing. These are dangerous substances that are commonly abused because they are addictive. Again, substance abuse.
Today, because of the rapid change from an active to sedentary lifestyle, along with the prevalence of high fat foods in our communities, obesity is one of the most serious public health problems facing all Native people—including children. And the problem doesn’t end at being overweight—the problem is that being overweight leads to other things: hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gallbladder disease, joint diseases, and even cancer.
So, how can we make small changes for improving the health and wellness of our families? It starts by being honest with ourselves. One example is to take frybread off of its pedestal. A lot of people might hate us for saying this but frybread is not power. Frybread kills us. Frybread is not traditional. It was once a way for us to make a cheap, filling food with limited ingredients but now we understand that it hurts us, so we should stop feeding it to our children. It doesn’t do them any good. There are dozens other legitimately traditional foods that are often entirely absent from our diets. Start looking into foods that are Native to your homelands and incorporate those into your meals instead. Make it a priority. Buffalo, salmon, wild rice… the list goes on—these are the foods that we should really be proud of. These are real Native foods. Not frybread.
Dr. Kyle Hill is an Ojibwe/Lakota clinical psychologist. He’s only 30—relatively new in the field—so in comparison to a lot of other researchers and clinicians, he has a fresh yet informed perspective regarding what we can do to improve overall community wellness.
Dr. Hill suggests that the best way to address these slow suicides is to implement the inverse: slow healing. That means: start the healing process with the kids, before they even realize the healing needs to happen. While they’re still innocent and impressionable.
“The issue with healthcare in general right now is that we treat the symptoms, we intervene, but we don’t foster healthy growth. But it’s really about restoring a healthy developmental trajectory from an early period,” he explains, “For example, in schools—instead of saying the pledge of allegiance every day, say a prayer in the Native language. Instead of nap time have gardening time. Have classes where the kids build sweat lodges. There’s science in that stuff—it’s our science. Developing social/cultural capital at a young age… that’s sovereignty. That’s health.”
We talk about sovereignty, we talk about self-determination, and sometimes we forget that the next generation is where our power really comes from. We have the opportunity now to set our children up for success. But all of this is rooted in public health. We can’t allow ourselves to continue succumbing to the perils of post-colonial life. If we remain fully alive and intact, if we simply avoid substances—we will see the end of slow suicide and the return to real sovereignty.
Dr. Hill puts it like this: “You know that saying ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’? That’s really true. That’s what’s going to bring us back.”
aabizhiishin: s/he revives, comes to ; s/he comes alive again
—definition from The University of Minnesota Ojibwe People’s Dictionary
Language is very telling. There isn’t a word quite like this in English. The reason words like this exist (in Ojibwe, and probably in a lot of other Indigenous languages) is because the people in the past went through struggles, too. Life was not perfect, problems abound. But still, there was always opportunity to revive, to renew, to get back to the good life. That reclamation of hope was a very real, tangible concept.
Every day is full of choices, and it’s never too late to start making healthy ones. Open-mindedness is tradition. Community healing is tradition. Coming alive is the best way to prevent premature death and slow suicide.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota and focuses on spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger. Gyasi Ross is from both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Reservations and is a concerned dad, uncle and big brother who understands the need for awkward conversations. www.cutbankcreekpress.com Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi.