Tell all my mourners
To mourn in red—
Cause there ain’t no sense
In my bein’ dead.
—Langston Hughes (1902—1967)
“Yeah. I remember when I was a kid how adults were trying to control my grief, trying to tell me how I was supposed to feel or how I was supposed to behave….that there was a proper way to mourn… and I was interested in improperly mourning.”
Ain’t no sense.
Death by suicide is senseless, awful, and sorrowful in every way. We’re not here to glorify suicide, we’re here to talk about it. Because it needs to be addressed.
To clarify the context of Mr. Alexie’s quote, he wasn’t referring to any personal contemplation of suicide when he said this. He was talking about how he dealt with—or was unable to deal with—deaths within his own family. He wailed, he cried, he lost control. He expresses a memory of confusion regarding the appropriateness of his own coping methods, and the fact that other people seemed to have an opinion on whether or not he was doing it right. It’s relevant to this suicide conversation, because it calls into question the idea of how to grieve.
And the fact is, many of us—American Indian people—don’t know the answer. Sometimes, a lot of times, we just can’t deal.
It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with us. It’s that as a people, our souls have been collectively wounded. It’s called historical trauma. We’re still experiencing grief from the fairly recent genocide of our people, followed by a cultural genocide through assimilation and boarding schools, compounded with a legacy of intentional oppression by the federal government/military, leading to epidemic conditions of poverty, alcoholism/drug abuse and familial losses, which has caused the overall suppression of our voices and dignity by the outside world. These are things that every one of us faces to this day.
Almost every American Indian person struggles with something that came from this colonial legacy, and for many of us, these struggles are either constant or recurring.
“I just wish I knew why it happened this way. I really do. I could be so much more peaceful if I just knew why it happened this way.”
—“Dan”, a Lakota elder, as told to Kent Nerburn (in reference to this colonial history of violence and oppression).
Grief and traumatic events are hard enough to deal with when there’s a beginning and end. For example, one loses a grandparent to whom they were extremely close. It’s hard. I’m not going to say that it’s easy to deal with by any means—but at the very least, when something like this happens, we can (usually) justify a reason for it: my grandparent grew old and sick, it was their time. We have the comfort of knowing that everybody has to deal with losing a grandparent at some point or another. It’s easier to deal with it because while it’s tragic and sad, it’s also natural. It’s something that we can recover from.
But for many American Indian people, not only are we born with a sense of loss for our ancestors that we can’t even put our fingers on, but we experience and witness heartbreaking and terribly devastating loss relatively frequently throughout our lives.
On one hand, we’re so strong in the sense that there’s so much we and our ancestors have overcome. Our communities are intact, we share a deeply rooted love for one another, and we have incomparably powerful cultural heritage. On the other hand, the closer we are to our communities, the more it hurts that we experience and witness, on a near-daily basis, the collective struggle of our people. It hurts to see our brothers and sisters going through alcoholism, relying on drugs, losing their personalities to battles with substances, abusing our loved ones (which is so contrary to our cultural traditions), struggling to pay the bills, encountering risky situations, and very, very often, dying young.
“So often, as soon as a Native person is able to start coping with one bad thing happening, something else comes up, and it’s like, when does it end? Where is the time to heal?” explains Dr. Jacque Gray, research psychologist and Associate Director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota.
And even when healing is taking place, it’s back to the question of how to grieve. We do know that prior to colonialism, our people were usually very in tune with the spirit world, usually experienced ceremony and prayer as a part of their daily lives, and were usually engrossed in the traditions of their people and without question were generally more comfortable with how they would go about the mourning process or dealing with sadness. Today, our people are often—not always, but often—removed from ceremonies and culturally familiar ways of dealing with bad situations. Sometimes, suicide feels like the only option.
It’s heavy, heavy stuff we’re dealing with. But the good part is, there’s a lot of hope and a lot being done to improve the situation.
APPROACHING HEALING AND SOLUTIONS
The statistics are bleak—we’re not even going to go into the numbers—instead let’s just say that yes, Native people, especially youth, die by suicide at an alarming rate. The information is available through the CDC and IHS websites.
Instead of stats, let’s look at solutions and techniques for addressing the issue. We’ve spoken with dozens of sources—individuals and organizations who are working to combat suicide—all with powerful stories. Here are a few things that stuck out.
“If you’re feeling helpless, help someone.”
— Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar opposition leader
Mark LoMurray has been working on suicide prevention for nearly 50 years. He runs an organization called “Sources of Strength,” and they partner with tribes and villages all over Indian country. Sources of Strength recruits and trains peer leaders who have often been through traumatic situations themselves to mentor others and spread hopeful messages.
And that’s the trick: staying positive, and focusing on strengths, not weaknesses. If you’re in a situation where you can help somebody, remind them of how you got through something rather than emphasizing how difficult it was in the moment. Emphasizing the negative can lead to further feelings of helplessness.
LoMurray also reminds us that even though Native communities experience very real post-traumatic stress and trauma, there are ways to spin that.
“Everybody knows about post-traumatic stress but there’s also post-traumatic thriving,” he says. “Some people have been through really, really rough stuff and they’ll make a plan to change their life and get really resilient and grow from that.”
And that’s exactly what Rayna Madero, Founder and Executive Director of Native Cry Outreach Alliance, did. Years ago, several of her close family members died from suicide, and in her state of grief (coupled with the fact that she was in an abusive relationship at the time), she attempted suicide as well. Eventually, she decided to do something about it—not just for herself, but for others.
“I was grieving so hard and knowing that I’m not letting my loved ones rest—but I had to let them rest. But I figured the only way I could help myself was to help other people who are going through the same struggles.”
CULTURALLY APPROPRIATE BEHAVIORAL HEALTHCARE
“It is reasonable to expect the doctor to recognize that science may not have all the answers to problems of health and healing.”
—Norman Cousins, world peace advocate.
Recent research shows that incorporating unique cultural needs in mental health treatment greatly reduces suicide risk.
But the lack of well-funded, culturally appropriate behavioral healthcare programs in Indian Country is staggering. It is estimated that IHS is only able to fund about 7% of actual behavioral health needs. And even if IHS programs were fully funded, a lot of times Native people simply don’t feel comfortable going to a sterile environment like an IHS clinic for emotional support.
As with regular medicinal treatments, American Indian people are often better suited to counseling or psychiatric services that are rooted in traditional healing methods. And while there are many programs and non-profits out there who do operate such models (for example, incorporating traditional ceremonies or organizing healing activities based on what’s popular in specific reservation communities), many of them are independent and relying on unstable funding sources.
One way to improve the longevity and stability of all of these programs—IHS, non-profit, etc.—is to get more researchers into Indian country who can “clinically” vouch for these programs in order to secure funding. Federal funding sources, like grants, almost always require evidence-based research before they’ll offer the money. And of course, if these behavioral healthcare professionals are Native themselves, they will be much more capable to understand and work with the communities.
ADDRESSING THE “SPIRIT OF SUICIDE” HEAD ON
“…the idea of wanting to die is literally a misinterpretation of the soul’s desire to transform.”
—Eduardo Duran PhD, founder of 7th Direction Psychotherapy
Dr. Duran is an Indigenous clinical psychologist who has dedicated his life to revolutionizing contemporary American Indian behavioral healthcare.
We’ll end with a concept from his book, Healing the Soul Wound:
If the spirit of suicide has come to visit you, make an offering. Change the relationship with that suicidal energy: welcome it. Acknowledge that it’s not there to bring death, but rather to bring a transformative time. By making an offering and speaking to it, you can empower yourself to be in control, in case that spirit returns in the future. During this transition, a part of you may die – and that’s okay. Let it happen. But don’t let that suicide spirit take control – death is permanent, and death is not going to fix anything.
Remember that the spirit of pain is directly connected to the spirit of healing.
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.