I was watching SportsCenter the other day and some news hit me right between the eyes: Junior Seau, Samoan phenom, committed suicide. Seau was always one of my favorite players for a few different reasons: 1) Seau was Samoan, and I consider all Polynesians to be Indigenous brothers and sisters, having had similar experiences to many Native people here on the mainland, 2) He was a grown man named “Junior,” and I always thought that only happened in Indian communities, so I appreciated his Indian-ness in that way, and 3) when I was in school, some people thought I looked Samoan and would call me “Seau,” even though I couldn’t remotely play anything like him.
Instantly, the news brought me back to the many suicides that I’ve known about in Indian Country; it sadly made me realize that perhaps our connection is even stronger than I thought. I started thinking about epidemic of suicides amongst our own people.
See, we once had buffers that protected us, and future generations, from giving up hope. We had a strong and beautiful spiritual tradition that caused us—even in the face of genocide, rape, murder, loss of tradition and slavery (yes, some Natives were slaves)—to never lose hope. Our ancestors were geniuses who set up powerful spiritual boundaries that we were not supposed to step over lest bad stuff happen to both the individual as well as the collective.
Our spirituality and clan/band/families gave a structure and meaning to life that was all-encompassing; through it, we were acutely aware of our purpose and the profound significance of each one of our lives. When a Native person passed, not only was it a sad event on a social level, but it also meant one less warrior to protect the band, one less auntie to make decisions about land and resources and one less uncle to discipline the kids. Each death was a loss on many different levels.
We valued every single life because the survival of the band might rely upon that single life.
As a result, life was sacred. “It’s a good day to die” wasn’t an invitation or a wish, it was an understanding that if the Creator designated this day as our day to go, we mere mortals certainly couldn’t change that. Therefore, we’d approach it with honor and thankfulness for our opportunity to fulfill that purpose in a meaningful way. “It’s a good day to die” was not macho or nihilistic—it was practical; God forbid we died over some foolishness instead of dying while protecting or providing for our families.
That’s changed. Many Native people, especially Native men, no longer see our lives as necessary. We don’t seem to understand that we still have an obligation to protect our families, discipline our nieces and nephews, and provide financially and spiritually for our families.
Many of us have lost hope. Many Native people now choose to do what our ancestors refused to ever do—give in to the spirit of hopelessness, the spirit that says that things will never get better. Our ancestors refused to give up even when their future looked bleaker than we could ever imagine, even in the face of almost certain extermination. They didn’t give up. To do so was unspeakable—a sign of weakness, the ultimate sign of selfishness.
To commit suicide was to endanger your whole community.
Now, we are squarely into our third generation of Native men that seem to give up entirely too easily. Despite the relative progress of our people and the fact that our lives—although oftentimes difficult and trying—are SO much easier and filled with opportunities than our ancestors’ lives, many of us choose to take the easy way out and not fulfill the purpose that the Creator has for us to protect and provide for our families. Statistically, we kill ourselves 25% more frequently than anybody else.
Let me say in no uncertain terms: it’s a spiritual thing. Those who choose to commit suicide are choosing NOT to live up to their responsibilities to their people, their families, their Creator.
The answer? I don’t know. I’m not a spiritual leader. I do know that things seemed slightly more hopeful, and there seemed to be substantially less suicides, when there were absolutes and Native kids were actually scared of something. A spanking. A spirit. The A:do’shleh. Something. I know I grew up with both—I didn’t talk back because I’d get whooped and I didn’t whistle in the dark because spirits would get me and my family. Fear was good—it protected my family and me.
It seems like a good start might be with a discussion (or a bunch of discussions) about our purpose on this planet and to our families. It might help to ingrain, from an early age, the value of each Native life—that behavior like devaluing our lives is hereditary, and that the children of suicide are more likely to take their own lives. Losing hope is contagious. Literally. One suicide can lead to the death of many, many Natives, as happened in Wyoming some time ago.
And so the cycle goes on if they choose not to acknowledge their responsibility to the larger community and ignore those strong spiritual buffers.
RIP Junior Seau—one of our Polynesian Indigenous brothers who also lost hope. God bless all of the families, Native and otherwise, affected by suicide. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To see all of the many Native people, and particularly Native men, who have given up hope? I don’t claim to have the answers, but I think it starts with re-learning our sense of purpose and responsibility to the greater community. Let’s work together to try to figure out how to get Native people’s hope back—seriously, this is an invitation, and I’m wanting to work with you to figure out how to start to address this spiritual problem.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called “Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways)” which you can get at www.dkmai.com. He is also co-authoring a new book with Robert Chanate coming out in the Summer of 2012 appropriately called “The Thing About Skins,” and the website and publishing company for that handy, dandy book is www.cutbankcreekpress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi