Indian Tribe uses tradition to combat suicides

By Tom Mast
Casper, Wyoming (AP) October 2011

It began inside a jail cell, where a young man hanged himself.

What followed was a cascade of death that threatened to engulf the Wind River Indian Reservation.

During August and September of 1985, nine young people killed themselves. Most were Northern Arapahos.

Four of the victims were between the ages of 14 and 19, and five between 23 and 26.

Three additional victims, between the ages of 18 and 23, had ties to the reservation and to some of the other victims.

Eighty-eight verified suicide attempts or threats also were recorded, the majority by young people 13 to 19 years old.

Mental health experts from around the nation tried to intervene.

“But it wasn’t doing any good,” Nelson White Sr., an Arapaho elder, recalled.

National media descended on the scene, an intrusion many people resented as insensitive and bent on sensationalism. One television crew tried to crash a victim’s funeral. Eventually, tribal leaders barred the press from Indian land.

Almost as quickly as it spread, the contagion ended.

Alcohol was a direct contributing factor in four of the deaths. But in the absence of concrete answers, larger causes remained matters of conjecture.

At the height of the episode, an Arapaho elder remembered that certain ceremonies had been performed during an epidemic many years earlier.

Prayers were said, and offerings made to the four directions and to the Creator, to purify and restore harmony in a manner consistent with traditional beliefs.

Elders Nelson White Sr. and Crawford White said that’s when the deaths stopped.

Their account is corroborated by a scientific review of the incident.

In a journal article, Margene Tower of the Indian Health Service referred to a “traditional medicine” ceremony that happened at the height of the epidemic.

“This ceremony was held following the ninth suicide,” she wrote. “It was an important cultural and spiritual event that aided in the resolution of grief and increased cohesiveness in the community. No further deaths occurred after this ceremony was held.”

She noted that while suicide attempts remained abnormally high for two months after the ninth deaths, these soon subsided as well.

It was the power of community and a people’s prayer that broke the deadly cycle, Nelson White Sr. said: “We belong to the Creator.”

What happened among the Northern Arapahos in 1985 has not been forgotten.

Efforts to forestall suicides today incorporate ceremonies conducted in the Arapaho language, talking circles, sweat lodges and involvement of elders, all woven together in a kind of community safety net.

Trained suicide interveners watch for early signs of trouble. Both the Northern Arapahos and the Eastern Shoshones with whom they share the Wind River reservation have suicide prevention programs.

These efforts have been largely successful.

In 2009, an 18-year-old woman shot herself to death in Arapahoe, according to records of the Fremont County coroner. Before that, a young person had not died by suicide since 2003, when a 10-year-old Fort Washakie boy killed himself.

Between 2000 and 2010, 116 people in Fremont County killed themselves. Twenty-seven, or 23 percent, were American Indian.

Chaos erupted.

A 15-year-old boy threatened to harm himself with a knife; screaming and confusion ensued.

The cops wanted to jolt the boy with a Taser gun; nobody wanted him to run.

Into this tumult stepped Telano Groesbeck, only a couple of weeks out of suicide prevention training.

“I was scared,” he said. “My heart was pumping.” Would he say the wrong thing and make matters worse?

Groesbeck began searching for some thread that would establish a connection. And among the Northern Arapaho, there’s always a connection.

“The whole tribe’s a family,” Crawford White said. “One way or another, we’re related.”

On this occasion, Groesbeck knew the teenager’s dad, which established some common ground. Slowly, a potentially lethal situation was defused.

The Northern Arapaho tribe provides within its structure a support network for early intervention.

A distraught young person confides in a friend, who alerts an aunt, who tells Groesbeck, who invites the young person to a talking circle or a youth sweat lodge.

Groesbeck said depression and suicidal thoughts often are intertwined with drugs and alcohol abuse.

In a sense, such behaviors are a slow motion form of self-destruction: “They’re killing themselves doing it,” he said.

The roots of destructive behavior can be complex, but Groesbeck said the pernicious impact of bullying is sometimes missed. A child bullied at school might also be bullied in reservation housing by the same tormentors, and so abuse can be unrelenting.

“The answer’s always within the kid,” he said. “You have to listen.”

Suicide prevention efforts often are high-profile. Harmony Spoonhunter, director of Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health, noted that a suicide prevention powwow was held in June.

Powwows are major community events. They can be used as an opportunity to share information and galvanize community action.

Suicide prevention programs in schools also are common, and both tribes actively seek to train people in suicide prevention.

George Leonard, suicide prevention coordinator for the Northern Arapahos, likened the stirring of suicidal thoughts to a wild river. The goal is to rescue a young person at risk before he or she reaches the falls.

Talking circles and sweat lodges provide young people with opportunities to learn more about their language, their culture and traditional spirituality, and therefore themselves, he said.

“These kids have it in here,” Leonard said, tapping his heart.

At age 14, Daisy Norse was depressed and suicidal.

That was two years ago. Today, the Wyoming Indian High School student is making plans for her future. She credits the change to medication and participation in the Tribal Youth Program, which offers sweat lodges for young American Indians.

At first, Daisy wasn’t impressed with the sweat lodges. “I really didn’t want to go in,” she said. “It felt like boring to me. It just didn’t seem that cool at the time.”

But after a while, the traditional practice began to resonate. “I found that way I could pray to the Creator about my problems,” she said.

And not just prayers about her problems, but also more expansive prayers for her relatives, cancer victims, starving children, blessings for people facing all manner of difficult circumstances.

With the help of modern medication and traditional practice, Daisy found her way through the darkness.

Suicide prevention efforts on the Wind River reservation have not gone unnoticed.

A year ago, Northern Arapaho elders were called upon to help stop a suicide outbreak claiming the lives of young people on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

“The way it was done, it was low key. There was no press, no news,” Crawford White said. “It was kept quiet.”

At a powwow later in Denver, a tearful Lakota man thanked the Northern Arapahos for their help.

Even more recently, people at the Crow Creek reservation of South Dakota contacted Arapaho elders to help them break another cycle of suicides.

Nelson White Sr. said news media often pounce on the negative, but there are many young people who have walked away from the darkness, hold jobs and have finished school.

Traditional ceremonies, community, spiritual wellness -- it’s all tied together. “We’re a family. We take care of each other,” Crawford White said.

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