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Expert says past genocide linked to high suicide rates

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Any discussion of the high rate of suicide among young American Indians must begin with an acknowledgement of genocide, a nationally recognized expert in social work among Indian people said Oct. 24 in Airway Heights.

So far, there has been no such official acknowledgement from the U.S. government, said Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

“So much happened to our people, we didn’t have time to recover from one trauma before another occurred,” said Brave Heart, a Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota who developed the theory of “historical trauma” among American Indians.

She spoke Oct. 24 at the Native American Suicide and Violence Prevention Conference at Northern Quest Casino. About 100 first responders and behavioral health professionals attended the two days of workshops that ended Oct. 25.

The conference was sponsored by the Camus Institute of the Kalispel Tribe, the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, Eastern Washington University and the QPR Institute at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the suicide rate of young American Indians is four times higher than the national average.

The discussion may be relevant to the Inland Northwest, where federal officials are currently responding to an increased number of suicides on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

According to the IHS, the peak annual suicide rate for the American Indians in Washington state over a 10-year period ending in 1996 was 23 per 100,000 people. The Colvilles’ rate is 5 percent higher than that.

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Seven officers and civil servants from IHS, the CDC, the Health Resources Service Administration and the Bureau of Prisons have responded to the Colville tribal leaders’ call for assistance in dealing with the suicide rate.

Colville social workers were among those attending the conference, said Sara Sexton-Johnson, director of the EWU Office of Professional Development and External Programs.

Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah said his tribe was concerned for the welfare of all the tribes in the region, particularly the children.

“It is really important for Indian people to remember who they are and where they came from,” Cullooyah said.

He and others at the conference stressed the importance of instilling a sense of tradition, culture and Native spirituality in young people. Without it, they said, there is a void that can lead to isolation, drug abuse or even suicide, the second-leading cause of death for Natives between the ages of 15 and 24.

Historical trauma is the intergenerational post-traumatic stress that is the result of the genocide perpetrated on American Indians, Brave Heart said. The resulting “cumulative group trauma” was aggravated by the boarding school system imposed on Indian children by both the United States and Canada, robbing them of their traditions, language and families, she said.

The children of the massacre survivors, the boarding school survivors, passed on this trauma to their descendants, Brave Heart said. Hope for American Indian children lies, Brave Heart said, in recognizing that this historical trauma exists and reclaiming traditional culture and spirituality through the power of the tribal community and “grass-roots healing.”

<i>Copyright (c) 2006, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.