Northern Arapaho Tribe Finds Traditional Ceremonies Effective in Curbing Suicides

When a series of 12 suicides and 88 verifiable suicide attempts impacted the Wind River Indian Reservation in August and September of 1985, mental health experts from around the nation tried to intervene, reported the Star-Tribune of Wyoming. “But it wasn’t doing any good,” Nelson White Sr., an Arapaho elder, told the Tribune.

Nelson White Sr. and another elder, Crawford White, recalled how the tribal community performed traditional ceremonies following the epidemic. They said prayers and made offerings to the four directions and to the Creator. That’s when the deaths stopped for 15 years.

An Indian Health Service (IHS) analysis of the two-month suicide epidemic corroborated their account.

“This ceremony was held following the ninth suicide. It was an important cultural and spiritual event that aided in the resolution of grief and increased cohesiveness in the community. No further deaths occurred after this ceremony was held,” wrote Margene Tower, an IHS mental health consultant in a journal article published in 1989 by the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the Colorado School of Public Health and the University’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

The tribe employed other efforts, such as halting the extensive media coverage thought to be highly detrimental to efforts to combat the epidemic, according to Tower’s journal article. When suicide attempts escalated directly on the heels of the heaviest media coverage in mid-September, tribal leaders barred reporters from the reservation.

Nelson White Sr. contends the power of community and prayer stopped the deaths and restored harmony. “We belong to the Creator,” he told the Star-Tribune.

Today, efforts to curb suicides “incorporate ceremonies conducted in the Arapaho language, talking circles, sweat lodges and involvement of elders, all woven together in a kind of community safety net,” the Star-Tribune stated.

Also on the reservation today, people trained to intervene before suicidal thoughts turn fatal watch for early warning signs.

Read the full article in the Star-Tribune.

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