(Gyasi’s Note: I am privileged to be able to raise my teenage nephew Antonio. This is an actual conversation with him—I asked him if it was ok if I shared. He is not suicidal to my knowledge, nor has he ever been to my knowledge. Yet, that’s precisely the point, right? We never know and so we shouldn’t wait until we think that they might be. This is also dedicated to ALL of our little brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, biological or not—I think they all can benefit from reading this. Chelsey and I started this series talking about “uncomfortable conversations.” This is the last in the Suicide Chronicles series and hopefully a model for one of those uncomfortable conversations for those who have difficulty with them—almost all of us. Thank you for reading the series and Chelsey and I truly appreciate being able to have these important conversations with you. Love you all.)
First and foremost, I love you, nephew. You’re one of the main reasons that I do what I do.
I remember when I was 13 years old, my little brother (young uncle) Sutah Gyiyo was born—the brownest, spiky-haired-est, baby-smelling-est, Indian-est boy that I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m of mixed blood and I love all of my ancestry. But at that moment when I saw him, I knew that I couldn’t be anything else but Native because this little Indian boy was going to look up to me no matter what I did. I resolved at that moment—the first time I held him—that I wasn’t ever going to drink alcohol or do drugs. Not for moral reasons, but because I am well aware of our peoples’ history with those things and it seems like they affect Native men worse. People who say that Natives do not have a particular problem with alcohol are lying—we do and we see it. Those are mainly people from outside of our communities who say that because they don’t deal with our truths and many times are ashamed of our truths. It’s nothing to be ashamed of -we just gotta work hard to fix it. Therefore, I resolved at that moment that I was going to try hard to give Sutah and you and ALL my nieces and nephews a different example than I had.
Thank you for giving me the strength to do what I do, nephew.
Since your uncle Sutah was born, I’ve been blessed with many nieces and nephews. You’re one of the youngest, one of the babies. I’ve been blessed with so many for so long that I’ve now seen cycles repeat themselves. I’ve observed the continuation of poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse. I know that if nobody takes strong steps to change those unhealthy behaviors, they are almost guaranteed to keep repeating themselves in our communities. Fortunately, I’ve also witnessed how families can change patterns of unhealthy behavior IF they really work and remain faithful and pay attention every single day to make sure that those spirits of bad health and drugs and alcohol don’t creep into their families.
Chief Seattle Club, photo credit Deyo Esquivel
It can happen. We can change our worlds. It just takes hard work.
Similarly, I’ve seen how the spirit of suicide affects Native men within our communities. I don’t know if it’s pride or testosterone or what, but it seems like that spirit attacks us men more than it does Native women. That’s not to take away from the Native women who are suffering and who have suffered from this spirit of suicide—but for right now, my concern is with you, Nephew. I’m speaking to you because I see so many of your friends, young men just like you, listening to that spirit of suicide… giving in to that spirit of suicide.
What you have to understand is that the spirit of suicide lies to you, nephew. You think that he wants you. But he’s not after you. He wants to hurt your family and the ones you love. He’s after your family’s spirit. He’s after your community’s spirit. Where there is one suicide, rest assured there will be more. And you’ll be helping others to kill themselves and to keep that painful cycle going.
That’s the thing: suicide doesn’t kill the person’s spirit who commits suicide. That’s too easy. It kills their whole family’s spirit.
If you were to give in to that spirit of suicide, your family will be wondering what they did wrong for years, and maybe even for the rest of their lives. They’ll want to have happy memories of you, but they won’t be able to. Every single time your mom smiles thinking about you, it will quickly turn into tears and sobbing and uncontrollable sadness. There will be no more purely happy thoughts about you because every thought will lead back to “I must have done something incredibly wrong because why else would he leave us like this?”
You’d be hurting, in the deepest way, those who love you the most.
That’s not a Native man’s role. I say that because you’re almost a man—you’re becoming a man. A Native man’s role is to protect his family. That always has been our role, since before time was called “time.” A Native man’s role is to feed and protect his family—to be someone that helps make his family’s lives easier. Our role is to take care of our mothers and dads as they become older. Our roles are not to cause our parents and family eternal heartache. It is not to make them question themselves and to feel guilty for the rest of their lives. NO! The men in our communities always had to think of family first—if they didn’t, our communities suffered and sometimes disappeared. The men did everything they could to survive and avoid death because they knew their families needed them for protection.
They were necessary.
You are necessary.
There are times when you won’t feel necessary or loved, but you are. That bad feeling will pass. I promise—it always does. When you think your parents hate you or your girlfriend hates you or that the world hates you…they don’t. That’s part of the spirit of suicide’s lies. It will tell you that they hate you but they don’t. They love you. There will be rain and hardship and difficulty, but our people have worked through rain and hardship and difficulty for tens of thousands of years.
You need to understand that you can get through anything - just like our people always have - if you just allow yourself time and forgiveness and space. Don’t listen to the lies—this hard time will pass. I promise.
It will get better.
If I can help, I am here. If I can not help, I am still here and we can work it out together.
I love you.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Chelsey Luger is from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe & Standing Rock Lakota Nation in North Dakota and focuses on spreading ideas for Native health and wellness. Follow her on instagram at chelswhoelse or twitter @CPLuger. Gyasi Ross is from both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Reservations and is a concerned dad, uncle and big brother who understands the need for awkward conversations. www.cutbankcreekpress.com Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi.