The epidemic of Suicide in Indian communities and in the Native American off-reservation population has become a #1 priority issue in Indian Country, right alongside Alcohol and Drug Abuse. The two just might be related, do you think? Of course, I’m being facetious, but sometimes stating the obvious is necessary. (I use the words Indian Country as meaning both our Indigenous Homelands and the Indian Population/Communities everywhere in the U.S. and Canada whether on Indian lands or not).
What we need now in Indian Country and our communities, both rural and urban, are strategies. What works in one place, may not work in another. National Strategies and written plans are nice at identifying the problems but actual successful solutions are in the communities and will come from our communities. We have to combine local strategies with money and man-power sources from wherever available.
I’m not an expert on Suicide Prevention, but I do know what I have learned in a half century or so of observation.
However, here’s what I know in my heart and intuitively:
1. Alcohol and Drug abuse and addiction feed into Suicide attempts and Suicide deaths. All are tied in with self-concept; how we feel about ourselves and the “inner pain” we try to mitigate by medicating ourselves with legal and illegal substances while most of us cannot even identify the source of the pain. Even if we can identify “it” we have a very strong belief (maybe even an addiction) that we cannot do anything about it and sometimes we even believe that we “deserved it”. We have seen so much mayhem, insanity, violence, poverty, neglect, abuse, indifference, and sexuality unaccompanied by true affection, and in some cases experienced as a matter of molestation, rape and incest, that we just accept these conditions as our fate. Some even believe that the hardships we endure in our lives constitute the “lot” that God/Creator has chosen for us individually and as a people.
2. We can come up with whatever fancy name for “it” that we want to (the current in vogue term is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or (PTSD) but it all comes down to an addiction to a belief that we don’t deserve to be here; we don’t deserve to have anything good happen to us because deep down we are a bad person and/or bad people; we don’t belong anywhere and to anyone because our parents and grandparents were bad people too, otherwise we would not have had to grow up in this “bad place” and experience all these “bad things”; we don’t even belong in this Indian Community because our parents never even liked being Indian or they chose to ignore what was, in their eyes and thought, not going to be useful to us in the future and perhaps even thought it was “un-Christian”; we don’t fit in here because we dislike/hate ourselves so much that we will engage in an activity we know is killing us or likely to kill us. (This is referred to as either “slow suicide” or “incremental suicide” depending on the recovering addict.
All of what was just described are a learned/conditioned response to the dominance of those who colonized us and systematically set out to neutralize and/or destroy anything about us that was native or tribal, our world-view, our values, our way of life that was/is our spirituality and our survival, all of which were done to eventually have us “disappear” and become them. And make no mistake about it “they” are still doing it to us and “they” are even using us to do it.
And therein lies the solution or, at the least, the beginning of a solution. It is our choice as to whether we continue to let the processes of “colonialization” proceed to their logical conclusion; the disappearance of our culture(s), the disappearance of our people(s) and the disappearance of our homelands.
Or we can choose not to let that happen and begin a purposeful, conscious, concerted effort to reverse the processes of colonialization and be who we really are as a tribal people and as Indigenous Communities whether we be in our homelands or without. Yes, we are Cree, Dene, Lakota, Hidatsa, Ojibwa, Pikuni, Wampanoag or Haudenosaunee, etc., but we are all Indigenous Native People who have already, in fact, used our commonalities to survive because we know that what we have in common is a key to our Tribal survival as well as the survival of Native People as a whole.
I’ve heard the term “Pan-Indianism” used as if such was a derogatory thing. What they are really talking about is “Indianism”, the glue that has held us together through 500 years of onslaught. Yes, it is important that we live our own “Tribal” or “Band” or “National” Culture, but it is also important to recognize that all the Tribes and Bands and Nations can and do contribute to our survival. We survive as one or we perish one at a time. The cultural adaptation of things and practices that appear to others to be “Generic Indian Culture” are the result of commonalities which we have employed to survive.
So what has this to do with Suicide Prevention and Drug and Alcohol Addiction? A lot. We know intuitively that “reversing” the processes of “colonialization” and its ugly twin “assimilation” is the answer to the survival and prosperity of the living generations and the generations to come. It can restore “who we are”, “what we are”, “where we belong”, “who we belong to”, and how we look at ourselves and how we conduct ourselves as part of the world community. We have the right to exist as Tribal Nations and as Indians into “perpetuity”. This is our God/Creator given right as well as a right recognized under the laws of nations, even the ones who have sought to conquer us and “disappear” us. We need to look at ourselves as we are and want to be, not as “they” want us to look at ourselves and be what “they” want us to be. Thus far, for the most part, we have compromised on our side of the equation in our adaptation to surviving within a numerically dominant population. That has to change, otherwise we condemn ourselves as Indigenous People to the same death, fast or slow, we see in those who seek relief in Suicide or in Substance Abuse. In rejecting that fate we have the beginnings of community, family, clan, tribal, national and international recovery from this destructive road we are now on.
Can we do this and still accommodate the changes we have made in our culture(s) that have become part of our existence. Of course, culture is not stagnant, it is dynamic and adaptable. But, everyday vigilance, maybe in some cases extreme vigilance (which some tribes still practice), must be maintained to keep the bad out and perpetuate the good. Without exception, I know there is that “undercurrent of good” that is linked to our culture(s) lying just below the sometimes ugly surface of our communities. We have to bring it to the surface for our survival and for the sake of the generations that may seek the escape of suicide and addiction.
Because we are so addicted to what the colonializers say we must do and how we must do it, we have to first admit to ourselves what is not working and re-do it so that it reflects our values but accommodates the need to function with the dominant society all around us. We know “wrong” when we see it and we know what is “right”. We have to take a tough look at ourselves, even how we are structuring and running our communities, and whether we need to look to our culture(s) for the remedies that will insure our survival, and in recognizing those remedies, we may just save some generations to come from wanting the quick death of suicide or the slow death of addiction.
Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree Attorney of Metis descent and writes from New Mexico. He is the former Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) and an Economic Development and Finance of Economic Development Consultant.