Douglas Quan, a reporter for the National Post in Toronto, recently described Aboriginal communities as being in “A state of perpetual mourning” and asked, “What’s behind the ‘clusters’ of suicide attempts in aboriginal communities?”
The latest “cluster” occurred in the community of Attawapiskat, which declared a state of emergency after 39 suicide attempts, mostly by young people, since March. Since autumn 2015 there have been more than 100 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat, which has a population of just 2,000.
What can we say to answer Quan’s question?
Quan quoted Gerald McKinley, an aboriginal health expert at Western University in London, Ontario, who said suicide clusters “are typically triggered by a variety of social stresses: substance use, changes to family structure, intergenerational trauma, violence, food insecurity, and low employment.”
The Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal studied an earlier “suicide cluster” on Manitoulin Island in 1974-75, and linked it to “an absence of self-esteem, an absence of any intimate personal relationships, family discord and heavy alcohol use in the family.”
John Berry, a psychology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, linked suicide among Native youth to “the situation of being caught between two cultures and being unable to find satisfaction in either.”
Carrie Bourassa, an indigenous health studies professor at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, said, “We don’t even have a word for suicide in our languages. Do you know what that tells me? It tells me that it did not exist in our communities before contact.”
These explanations all point to the ways human lives exist in communities and communities are intertwined in history. Humans are social beings and societies consist of human relations through space and time. The “past” exists in the present, in our memories (and thus our identities) and as the foundations of our institutions.
One of the most powerful examinations of this reality was written as an examination of the causes of alcoholism and alcohol abuse among Alaska Native People—Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being, by Harold Napoleon (Yup’ik). “Yuuyaraq” defines correct behavior not only among people, but also among all relations: land, waters, animals. Yuuyaraq encompasses the physical and spiritual world.
As Harold Napoleon explained, “arts, tools, weapons, kayaks and umiaks, songs and dances, customs and traditions, thoughts and actions” all bear the imprint of the spirit world and the spirit beings. Traditional Yup’ik “lived in deference to this spiritual universe, of which they were, perhaps, the weakest members. … They knew that the temporal and the spiritual were intertwined and they needed to maintain a balance between the two.”
Napoleon says the arrival of white men, bringing strange diseases, technology, and religious beliefs, proved “a fatal wounding” to traditional ways. He focuses on the “cataclysm of mass death” that followed the white men. It “changed the persona, the lifeview, the worldview, of the Yup’ik people.” A new generation of Yup’ik people was “born into shock… to a world in shambles. … From their innocence and from their inability to understand and dispel the disease, guilt was born into them. … They would become the first generation of modern-day Yup’ik.”
Napoleon wrote his book to provide context for understanding the dysfunctions of modern Yup’ik life. He says, “The survivors [of the fatal wounding] seem to have agreed, without discussing it, that they would not talk about it. … It was better…to act as if it had never happened, to nallunguaq. To this day, nallunguaq remains a way of dealing with problems…in Yup’ik life. Young people are advised by elders to nallunguarluku, ‘to pretend it didn’t happen.'”
“The survivors were reinforced in their decision not to talk…by the missionaries who told them their old beliefs were evil. … The children were, therefore, led to believe that the ways of their fathers and forefathers were of no value and were evil. The survivors allowed this.”
“The survivors also gave up all governing power of the villages…. In their heart of hearts the survivors…felt angry, bewildered, ashamed, guilty, but all this they kept within themselves. …Their experiences explain in great part the persona of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who are alive today.”
Napoleon goes on to describe the aftermath and consequences of Yup’ik devastation in terms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he calls “an infection of the soul.” This soul infection, he says, leaves more traumas in the wake of each sufferer, as the children inherit the “disease of silent despairing loneliness, heartbreak, confusion, and guilt.”
This historical context of social and personal devastation provides a way—perhaps the only way—of understanding the “suicide clusters” plaguing so many Native communities. The descendants of the generations who experienced colonial invasions first-hand carry the effects of that into their own lives.
The widespread taboo against talking about colonial devastation—and the continuity of neo-colonial domination of Native communities—prevents deep understanding of the causes of today’s despair and suicide. Napoleon says the present generation carries in their souls the ache of the original trauma. Since it remains unspoken, they do not understand why they feel as they do, and blame themselves for a historical legacy.
Carrie Bourassa, the indigenous health studies professor interviewed by Quan, said, “The youth in Attawapiskat made a list of what they need: YWCA, swimming pool, hockey rink, new school, more teachers, no alcohol on reserve, parenting classes. They want supports and they want healthy things to do.”
This youthful wish list tears at the heart, because the improvement of material life does not neatly translate into healing the soul. Social welfare programs begun in the 1960s have improved material conditions, the conventional measure of “quality of life”; yet, during the same period, there has been a rise in spiritual dis-ease: alcohol and drug abuse and associated violent behavior, and suicide.
Suicide clusters are not caused by a lack of swimming pools and hockey rinks. New schools and more teachers and parenting classes will not reduce suicide if the curriculum still focuses on “civilizing the Indians.” Alcohol prohibition will founder in the face of continued demand for substances that depress awareness.
Things are “healthy to do” only if they reach soul depth.
And that brings us to the point where souls meet history: There can be no healing of today’s generation except through community healing, which requires facing and speaking about historical trauma that lives on. This means facing and dealing with what Maria Braveheart-Jordan terms “historical unresolved grief.”
As Birgil Kills Straight and Steve Newcomb explain, “recovery” from high suicide rates, self-abuse through drugs and alcohol, and spousal and child abuse “must … include the active retrieval of our languages, cultures, and traditions, including Traditional Native Law.” In this way, communities work to “recover…a sovereign spiritual way of life, based on community and environmental health and well-being.”
The 14th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues confirmed this approach when it reported that suicide among Native Peoples “is linked to the loss by indigenous peoples of their rights to their lands and territories, natural resources, traditional ways of life and traditional uses of natural resources.” [UN Doc E/2015/43]
Attawapiskat and other Native communities have but one way forward: to address each other and challenge the surrounding world at a depth that arises from the soul and meets history, with an aim to recover the balance between spiritual and temporal that allows humans to live free lives.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.