What Does Historical Trauma Look Like? The Native American Youth Suicide Rate

Historical trauma sounds like an academic term. It does not hit you in the gut. Not like teen suicide does.

But teen suicide is one of the real world ways that historical trauma shows up in Native American communities. Consider the following data from a Huffington Post article last November: Native American Youth Suicide Rates Are At Crisis Levels:

Suicide looks very different in Native communities than it does in the general population. Nationally, suicide tends to skew middle-aged (and white); but among Native Americans, 40 percent of those who die by suicide are between the ages of 15 and 24. And among young adults ages 18 to 24, Native American have higher rates of suicide than any other ethnicity, and higher than the general population.

The issue got high profile attention last fall when the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report with new data. Coverage included the Huffington Post, Time magazine and  Medical Daily. The reports included heart-wrenching stories, such as this one from the PBS News Hour:

When Joaquin Gallegos was 5-years-old, his uncle took his own life.

For two decades, more than 30 of his family members and friends did the same, part of a trend sweeping Indian Country where suicide among people age 18 to 24 far outpaces the national rate, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consider the impact it would have had on you as a youth if even two of your friends and family members had committed suicide. It would have been devastating

Why is the suicide rate so high for Native youth?The U.S. government website Child Welfare Information Gateway says the following:

The disempowerment and oppression of American Indians and Alaska Natives, historical trauma and adverse childhood experiences have contributed to high rates of depression, other mental illness as well as high rates of suicide, among Tribal youth.

“Disempowerment,” “oppression,” and “adverse childhood experiences” are all wrapped up with historical trauma. Through colonialization, Native peoples lost their lands, their languages, and their cultures. Historical trauma includes physical trauma, psychological trauma, and economic trauma.

Early on, Native Americans suffered physical trauma through wars and genocide. They suffered psychological trauma by being told their religions were evil and being barred from practicing them. (It wasn’t made legal until 1978.) They were mocked with stereotypes in the media and in sports teams. They suffered economic trauma, as they were put on reservations with poor land and few good job opportunities. Many were raised in boarding schools, losing touch with their traditional ways, including their language and knowledge of how to raise a family. They did not have a place in society.

The negative effects of this wide spread, multi-generational trauma should be no surprise: depression, alcoholism, unemployment, health problems, broken families, and teen suicide.

And while some describe Native American teen suicide as a crisis, it is not a new problem. Minnesota Public Radio talked about it in 2005, more than a decade ago: Indian tribes ‘losing kids every day’ to suicide:

Across the nation, American Indian teens commit suicide at a rate at least twice the national average. The rate is much higher in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, where it’s five to seven times higher than the national average, according to an official with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

An April 14 article in IC Magazine (IC stands for Intercontinental Cry, a publication of the Center of World Indigenous Studies) points to a solution. It was titled: Preserving language key to overcoming Native suicide epidemic. It suggests the following effort to address the impact of historical trauma:

In order to bring an end to this long-standing crisis, there are systemic, cyclical and multi-generational issues that must first be addressed, with special attention given to ongoing disruptions in individual and cultural identity. …

Cultural continuity – and perhaps most specifically, native language preservation and retention – plays a crucial role in overcoming the ongoing native suicide epidemic.

Click on the link above for the full story. It focuses on the situation in Canada, but there is plenty of work to do in language preservation locally.

Both the Dakota and Ojibwe communities in Minnesota are losing their first-language speakers. There are a number of programs trying to train Dakota and Ojibwe language teachers, and to provide language training for young children. Examples include the Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Program, Anishinabe Academy, Bdote Learning Center, and the American Indian Magnet School.

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