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Deadly Epidemic in Real Time: It's Happening to Native Youth Right Now Before Our Very Eyes

[node:summary]Deadly Epidemic in Real Time: It's Happening to Native Youth Right Now Before Our Very Eyes
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QUICK STORY: I try to be a student of history and, as such, one of my pet interests is reading about epidemics during colonial times. A morbid curiosity, definitely, but disease was the biggest reason that Manifest Destiny worked, not military brilliance or superior physicality. Nope. Disgusting diseases. Therefore, I always was curious about how Native people reacted when we learned a devastating disease was coming–how did it change our behavior? What type of preparation did we do—pre Airborne and Emergen-C—to get ready for this battle?

For example, there’s the story about the Chinook people, who when Lewis and Clark visited them in 1805, were one of the largest tribes on the west coast (numbering some sixteen thousand people). A particularly nasty white trader named “Dominis” spread a disease on the Oregon coast in 1829 called “Ague Fever” (which was probably measles) and it wiped out over thirteen thousand of the sixteen thousand Chinooks. I further read about town criers in Native villages during these times of epidemics; the town criers were the journalists of the day who made sure that all the villagers knew what was going on. That was their job; they would soberly make sure that everyone knew that something terrible was coming.

They were the bearers of bad news. I’m sure they didn’t want to do this, but they had no choice; the survival of the people lay in the balance.

They still had to let everyone know.

Based upon the horrible number of fatalities you had to know that there was a pretty good chance you were going to get infected. And you also had to know that if you did get infected, there was a pretty good shot you were gonna die.

Genocide was happening in real time and it was probably terrible news to have to deliver. Yet, it was only by delivering this terrible news that some of the villagers were able to survive. Otherwise, everybody woulda stayed and not known about the epidemic until it was too late.

Delivering that terrible news literally saved Native people. 

Lina, a Syrian refugee, comforts one of her children in Lebanon. Photo courtesy UNCHR.org.

Why am I telling you this?

Our ancestors could not pretend that the imminent plagues and destruction that was upon them was not there. No, they had to be sober and vigilant and develop a plan in life and death conditions. If they hadn’t thought and spoken clearly about it and developed a clear plan, it may have meant the death of the whole gene pool.

Epidemic. Deadly. Ravaging Native communities.

Our generation likewise faces life and death circumstances and an epidemic, except sometimes it doesn’t seem like we’re doing as much about it as we could.

See, our kids are killing themselves. Frequently. En masse. According a recent Center for Disease Control study entitled “Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Aged 18-24,” when Native people commit suicide, 40% (!!) of those are between the ages of 15-24. That is starkly different than national averages for other ethnicities where most people who commit suicide are middle-aged. As sad as that is, it makes sense; mid-life crisis, people lose hope and make unfortunate decisions sometimes.

But for Native people, it’s our children who are losing hope during some of the most amazing times of their lives; they’re killing themselves three times as much as anybody else in this country.

We’ve known that suicide is bad within Native communities. Horrible. We’ve known this for quite some time. But there are, of course, other things that need attention within our communities as well. Therefore, we find a lot of other things to talk about—gambling, marijuana, mascots, “Pocahotties” or other identity issues. And that’s cool—those are worthwhile topics that certainly should be explored and discussed and I’m thankful so many people write about them so much.

Good stuff.

But suicide, especially by our young folks, speaks to something incredibly wrong internally within our communities. These kids are slipping through the cracks in the very worst way possible and it feels like we have an obligation to lift them up and write and talk and study and pontificate and work about that issue at least as much as all the rest. It feels like we’re watching a genocide, a lost generation, and not acknowledging that it’s happening.

From what I’ve read, it’s almost entirely preventable.

Number one, if we’re able to identify who is at risk, then there’s the possibility for intervention. Bringing up the conversation never hurts—but we have to be talking about it to start to identify who’s at risk. Number two, statistically mental illness is a role in almost 90 percent of suicides, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Moreover, the conditions are often treatable. However, within our communities mental health diagnosis and treatment rarely happen because IHS is chronically underfunded. Specifically, IHS spends only about $3,000 per Native person per year compared to the roughly $8,000 spent on healthcare by everyone else. 

Lina, a Syrian refugee, comforts one of her children in Lebanon. Photo courtesy UNCHR.org.

That means that it’s treatable. This huge, scary and tragic epidemic that affects Native people in WILDLY disproportionate numbers is treatable. Of course there’s work to do for our communities and tribal councils to push Congress to do their freakin’ job and increase the amount of money spent on Native mental health care. But that will only happen if we realize that, yes, there is in fact a disease, a condition, that is wreaking havoc on and killing our communities. After that, like our ancestors, we can formulate a plan of how best to attack this disease and survive this epidemic.

We can do something about this. Native people. Us. There is no cavalry coming to save our kids—we’re the only ones who can. But we have to acknowledge it and work…

We have an opportunity to meaningfully learn from our ancestors here: effectively delivering this horrible news about what suicide is REALLY doing to our communities could save all of our children.

Lina, a Syrian refugee, comforts one of her children in Lebanon. Photo courtesy UNCHR.org.

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
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