ORIGINAL COLUMN — A column by freelance writer Doug Cuthand in today’s Saskatchewan Leader-Post makes a strong link between suicide among Native American youth and the impact of colonialism and historical trauma on the indigenous people of North America:
There is no worse indictment on the failure of government policy toward aboriginal peoples in Canada than our appalling rate of suicide. The tragic act of taking one’s life is a reflection of our young people’s lack of hope for the future and pain of the present.
Suicide accounts for one quarter of the injury deaths for First Nations people between the ages of 15 and 25. According to Health Canada, suicide rates for First Nations youth are five to seven times higher than the national average.
We have suicide rates that are among the highest in the world. The rate in Nunavut, for example, is double that of Lithuania, which has the world’s highest suicide rate among countries.
Canada’s situation is similar to that of many Native American communities in the United States. For instance, in South Dakota, the suicide rate for white males 15 to 19 years old is 23 deaths per 100,000 population while the rate for Native American males in the same age group in the state is 103 per 100,000. (Data are for the years 1999-2005. The source is the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System or WISQARS.)
In his commentary, Cuthand recognizes that “there is no simple answer” to what lies behind this epidemic of suicide.
Living conditions, lack of opportunity, unemployment, and drug and alcohol abuse all contribute to the high rate of suicide among our youth.
Our young people are living through a period of profound change. Our culture is changing rapidly. We are moving from a rural society to an urban one. We are bombarded by information from the world through television. Our young people feel they don’t have a place in this new world.
Also, alcohol and drugs fuel these feelings. Health Canada estimates that about 60 per cent of suicides occurred while the individual was intoxicated.
He makes several fundamental observations that are vital to understanding suicide in Indian Country.
The recent epidemic is not in keeping with our history and culture. In the past, while we may have been poorer than today, the language and family structure was sound. We lived in large extended families. The grandparents either lived with the family or close by. They provided stability and passed the culture along to the younger generation.
The boarding schools broke this bond … Families were torn apart and the strong family support system was weakened badly.
Also, the assumption that aboriginal people are inferior in comparison to European Canadians is internalized and many aboriginal people actually believe they are inferior. This loss of self-esteem is destructive and reduces the ability to deal with life’s challenges.
Today the children and grandchildren of the stolen generations are rebuilding our societies as best as they can. But serious damage has been done and we see jails replacing residential schools, gangs replacing families, and television replacing the teachings of the elders.
Cuthand ends his brief essay with a discussion of possible solutions to the problem of suicide in Native American communities:
Statistics show that the high suicide rate is not evenly distributed across Indian country. Some communities have a higher rate than others and the reasons are associated with cultural factors.
Research has shown that communities where the culture is strong have a lower rate of suicide compared to reserves where the culture has been lost or seriously weakened. Also, when employment rates increase, the suicide rate declines. A strong culture combined with good leadership is a deterrent to youth suicide.
The answer to reducing the high suicide rate doesn’t lie only with the individual, it lies with the community … We must take ownership and address it and put a stop to this senseless loss of life.
[The abridged URL for this post is bit.ly/suicidecolonialism .]
Related SPNAC post: “Pre-Olympics Death of Native Artist Draws Sharp Contrast” on Feb. 28, 2010 at http://tinyurl.com/SharpContrast