Defense wins championships.
Stay in the game long enough and anything can happen. It’s something that I have to remind myself of—“You’re a dad. Don’t get in a fight; people like to shoot guns nowadays instead of fighting. Wear your seatbelt; Indians seem to always die in car accidents. Don’t eat that donut—way too many who look just like you died of complications related to diet or alcohol or diabetes.”
Stay in the game. Be there for your son. Your grandchildren. You might make history—you have a chance to be special, to educate, to assist, to serve. Just stay in the game.
Defense wins championships.
That’s what our ancestors did. That’s what treaties were all about. Hell, that’s what reservations are about—that’s why reservations, as imperfect as they are, are so incredibly important for Native people and will always be ground zero for Native people. Our ancestors saw our people dying off, literally in front of their eyes. They witnessed the eradication of our food sources. By the year 1900, there were only 250,000 Native people in the United States. Our ancestors who lived through that desolate and desperate time period had NO reason to think that we would be around in a hundred years.
We were dying off in front of our eyes.
But in their wisdom and hope and faith, our ancestors knew that IF we could stick around long enough, if at least some of us could carry on, we would be able to rebuild and regroup and once again develop into strong and striving Nations. We just had to survive. “We’ll preserve a small place for us,” our ancestors thought, “and establish some assurance from this greedy foreign government—education, some food, some land. Not as much as we rightfully or justifiably SHOULD have—definitely not ideal—but we’re going to stay in the game.”
It’s in our DNA. That’s what we do. Stay in the game. Survive. Defense wins championships.
When I read about young Native kids killing themselves, I think “We’re not playing defense.” People tell me a story about a 13-year-old Native girl who hung herself—she was part of an incomprehensibly horrible suicide epidemic; a wave of kids who killed themselves on a particular reservation. In reflection of this tragedy, I think a couple of thoughts:
1) I think of my 12 year old niece right now, or any of my MANY nieces and nephews at that vulnerable age thinking that things are that bad. Perhaps she feels hopeless—a bad day in school, or a bad couple of days…what if no one trained her to know that this “hopeless” time will quickly pass? What if no one took the time to train her to know that these moments are fleeting and that 12-year-olds (and indeed teenagers) have under-developed frontal cortexes? Put simply, the part of the brain that understands consequences for actions and regulates emotion (limbic brain) just doesn’t work right. That’s fact, not opinion.
MAYBE…those teenagers who commit suicide don’t really realize what “forever” means because of that? The emotion of the moment—without proper training—can very easily overpower the teenage brain.
MAYBE that’s why we need to have VERY, VERY intentional conversations with our Native youth about suicide and death at very young ages to explain, “No baby. Suicide is forever. This ain’t a video game. There ain’t no coming back.” We gotta be really clear.
2) The second thought I think about is the alarming rate at which all of these beautiful, promising Native kids are killing themselves (there’s a whole bunch— American Indian and Alaska Native youth aged 15 to 24 years old are committing suicide at a rate more than three times the national average), is that we’re simply not keeping these kids in the game long enough to help Native people as a whole. Put simply: we NEED these kids around because they are going to be the ones that bring us back to a place of health, balance and values.
These Native kids who kill themselves might have been the ones who cured cancer or AIDS using a knowledge of traditional herbs and plants if they just lived through adulthood. They might have been the next Shoni Schimmel or Ruben Littlehead or Wab Kinew—someone SO incredibly important to the self-esteem of our people that we simply cannot do without them. Those kids might have been the next Sam McCracken, the Native man who somehow created a VERY human and loving business, N7, within a large, capitalistic structure, whose single OCCUPATION is to make our communities healthier and give back 100% of monies generated from it to Native communities. Those kids could have been the next Jodi Gillette, ANOTHER strong Native from within our communities who works within a very large structure (the US government) and makes sure that there is always a strong Native voice that always has Indian Country on its mind.
Ruben Littlehead. Photo Credit: Lailani Upham
They coulda been that. If only they stayed in the game long enough to fulfill their promise.
Those precious young teenagers—who don’t have the capability to understand the severity of what they’re doing—might have been the next Don Burnstick or Ryan McMahon or J.R. Redwater who heal our people through laughter; the next Uncle Billy Frank, Jr., to whom we ALL owe a debt of gratitude. The next Winona LaDuke or Wilma Mankiller; women ALWAYS lead within our communities and families, and when one kills oneself, that’s a great leader that we simply won’t have. They might be the next Jim Thorpe or Billy Mills or Hank Adams or Crazy Horse—any one of our leaders who helped take Native people to a better place.
Billy Mills speaking at N7 Sports Summit. Photo Credit: Alvina Begay
We need those leaders. Desperately. Our communities have grown, our numbers have recovered, and yes, we have begun to bounce back from that period of near decimation in the early 20th century. However, we are still small enough that each and every individual in our communities has the potential to promote massive change; to transform our tribes; to make noticeable and widespread contributions.
We are still small enough that each individual makes a difference.
When these kids die, it robs the rest of the world of the great leadership that could have been. We have to take the time to make sure our kids know and fully understand the consequences of their actions—no, it’s not condescending to assume that they don’t understand what they’re doing. We CANNOT over-explain this. We have to be sure that they realize: “No, this is NOT playtime—suicide is forever. You will NEVER, ever see your grandma again. You will NEVER play with your little brother again. And no, you will NEVER, EVER get a chance to hug your parents again. Everybody will miss you. We will be sad that you’re gone. And if you do this to yourself, your classmates will be more likely to do it too. You will save your life and the lives of others by saving yourself.”
That’s why talking about this—openly, obnoxiously, non-judgmentally—is so absolutely necessary.
Because we’ll never even know the medicine and healers and leaders who have already killed themselves. And we’ll also never know if it could have been prevented if they simply knew the consequences for their actions.
Talking about suicide isn’t the ultimate answer to this question. Not at all. But it’s a step—a small, defensive step. But defense wins championships. We need to do what we can to keep these beautiful Native kids around because they are our secret to winning.
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.