Suicide Chronicles, Part 1 of 5: A Conversation Native People Need to Have

Chelsey Luger and Gyasi Ross

Silence kills. 

Suicide is a HUGE problem within our Native communities, yet it’s something that we barely speak about.  I put myself in this category as well—even though we’ve had several people within my family commit suicide, my family has never gotten together specifically to talk about either 1) why these suicides keep happening, or 2) how we can prevent further suicides from happening in the future.  While sexy political topics dominate headlines, this life and death issue that affects the heart of Indian Country—our homelands—hardly ever gets any press.  We haven’t yet collectively tackled this crucial question, “Why do we do this to ourselves?”    

We are not having these necessary conversations. 

Now, don’t get me wrong—there are Native people and organizations who do absolutely amazing things to shed light on suicide as a priority and to remember those Natives whose lives were tragically cut short by suicide.  Absolutely.  Thank goodness we have those folks and organizations memorializing and acknowledging that it’s going on within our communities at alarming rates; those good folks try to push the topic.  Yet, most of the time the rest of us don’t acknowledge the constant presence of suicide within our communities until after the fact. Perhaps it’s a funding issue.  Perhaps it’s a priority issue.  In either event, we simply are not proactively having intentional and awkward conversations about suicide—we avoid those; those painful and weird conversations with our 5 or 6 or 7 or 12 year old sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, or even our older siblings ... until something goes terribly wrong.    

Those conversations suck—like talking to our 12 year old sons or daughters or nieces and nephews about sex.  But we gotta have them.  12 year olds DO get pregnant.

Let’s make this very, very clear: TALKING about suicide does NOT increase the likelihood of someone we love committing suicide.  That’s fact.  IN FACT, if there is an effect at all, it will only DECREASE the likelihood of someone we love committing suicide.

We can’t wait for the “right time” or the “right person” to talk to our kids about suicide.  This IS the right time, we ARE the right people until better people come along.

There is no wrong time to talk about suicide.  Period.  ESPECIALLY for Native people.  We CAN’T simply bury our heads and act like it doesn’t affect us, as if our loved ones who committed suicide were just anomalies or accidents that we don’t talk about. 

No, we need to talk about this.  Badly. Native people are committing suicide at a rate that is three times the national average, and yet we seem to be hiding our heads in the sand.

Historically, many of our communities had people who were trained to guide these kinds of awkward conversation in the place of the biological parents.  No, the conversation wasn’t specifically about suicide (I don’t think), but these proxy parents were second mothers and second fathers to children, filling in where the parents had difficulty.  Consider this that—simply an honest conversation from concerned family members.  We’re going to do our tiny, little part to kill the silence that’s been killing our people.

Therefore, this is the introductory piece of a five-part series to talk about suicide within our Native communities.  We’re gonna talk science, but we will also feature stories about how it’s plagued our communities.  We’ll also highlight some positive things that are happening to reduce suicide and its effects.  We’re not scientists—heck, we’re not social workers! Still, we live within our homelands and travel throughout Indian Country, we’re concerned with the wellness of our people, and we see the devastating effects of suicide WAY too often.  Therefore, we’re going to do what we can to push this conversation.  Specifically, we’re going to include pieces that contemplate:

  • Why suicide’s effects are so extreme within Native communities
  • The intersection of diabetes/sugar/depression and suicide within our communities
  • The best practices to reduce the effects of suicide within our communities
  • Some straight-forward journalistic stories about suicide straight from members of our communities.

Obviously suicide is a very complex and multi-faceted epidemic.  Yet, despite suicide’s complexities, there are bite-sized steps that we can implement that will help reduce suicide’s reach within our communities.  We CANNOT make suicide a bogeyman—suicide ISN’T a bogeyman.  Bogeymen cannot be beat.  With suicide, Native people CAN beat this if we simply do the research and have the honesty to take the steps.  We are not victims—it is a long road, but Native people WILL win if take the first step in this very long journey.  The very first step? 

Talk about it.  Don’t be scared.  It won’t hurt to talk.  But it WILL hurt when we don’t talk about suicide.  We see that literally everyday. 

Silence kills.  But we’re gonna get loud and beat suicide together.  Let’s talk.  Awkwardly.  But necessarily. 

RELATED: Suicide Chronicles, Part 2 of 5: Transforming the Spirit of Suicide

RELATED: ‘No, Baby, You Will Never, Ever See Your Parents Again!: Suicide Chronicles, Part 3

RELATED: Slow Suicide, Slower Healing: Suicide Chronicles, Part 4

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.  Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



Flower's picture
Submitted by Flower on
I have an aunt living with a drug addicted son. She's been going thru a lot and twice this year has mentioned ending her life. I honestly don't think our tribal PD or social services can help. They've done nothing in the past. I think most people on our rez try to deal with these issues on our own because we don't get the full support or help from tribal programs. Social workers who aren't Native can't relate as well either when trying to help someone in crisis and sometimes our people won't open up to someone who isn't Native. My relatives and I are watching the situation closely. The PD won't do anything unless a crime has taken place. My son attempted suicide 3 years ago and they wouldn't try to stop him and gave me a hard time instead. I don't have any faith in the programs which are supposed to help our people.

ArmandoMadero's picture
Submitted by ArmandoMadero on
My wife is Rayna Madero. She is the founder of Native Cry Outreach Alliance. Because of her experiences growing up on the Rez and the hardships throughout her life she felt, like the author of this article, she had to start speaking up and getting people to talk about it. Her hope by talking about suicide in Native communities she can help to save a few lives or give comfort to those who have already lost loved ones. As a community, we need to listen and try to understand more about one another. It's easy to ask why in the end, but the real question is what could I have done to save that person from suicide? Why would this person rather end their life and what could I do to make that person feel differently? It's about feeding the brain and body with healthy nutrition so it can fire off the right chemicals to help get through hardships. Giving others confidence and letting each other know that it's okay to talk to someone about it. My personal belief that it comes down to the foods we eat, the amount of exercise we give our bodies, the continual growth through education, and simply to feel needed and loved. I admire my wife so much for talking about her pain and having the strength to turn some very bad times into positive memories through her out-reach. I love you Rayna, you are the light that shines brightly for me and our family. If anyone needs help or to talk about how they could bring suicide prevention awareness into their communities please feel free to contact Rayna Madero or myself. [email protected] / [email protected]. Check out Facebook: / Twitter:

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
It really can be a fundamentally hard, un-easy life considering the lack of basic service programs that many of "us" living away from the REZ take for granted. I only wish it weren't so for my parents (mother) and their house. Unfortunate, the house cannot be left vacant if even for one day lest some-one breaks into household and STEALs, ROBs, damages property. Then too the property sits next door to drug house and some appearances of prostitution from time to time. The local-regional Indian health service is inundated with emergent, urgent, health services - so seeing a provider, sometimes your forced to see him/her at night and the 30-minute drive back home. We've seen a few 'incidents' over the years of suicide and murder. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> In both instances, i ask what could I have done, if anything more? Ultimately, it was 'their' decision and choice to kill or to murder - no matter my time, my smile to them. The individual people/person has to look of the help and ask for it! The indian community/family has to provide that support and take some degree of responsibility. Too easy to blame others for faults and regressions. The subject of suicide is not just an individual thing, but rather, a family, a community, and a tribal sickness to contend with. Suicide existed long before the much celebrated Redskin topic. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Putting your-self in shoes of a sick patient, sick family - who has time to pose racist questions concerning an NFL football team? >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> There seems to be an awakening of asking questions regarding social media. Why not turn social media to asking and posing the hard questions to Indian Tribal Government and Federally-funding programs? Federal funded grants ARE NOT BEING SPENT entirely by Tribal Governments! In face federal funds have to be returned because the Tribe failed to spend. The question is WHY are federal funds begin returned - Mr. Tribal President ? The should be how social media as FACEBOOK and TWITTING should be used - asking the hard questions if the above written article is intended to make a movement or some impact to Suicide. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I've had three friends commit suicide. I see suicide as a human concern and not solely a Native concern. Times are difficult and oftentimes make it difficult for many people to survive. Suicide always leaves a vacuum in its wake and that vacuum is what those left behind have to contend with. I am well-acquainted with suicidal thoughts. After I returned home from the military I entertained thoughts of "offing" myself. I felt that there was no one to turn to and no one who cared. I eventually resolved to myself to being the burr in the ass of all those I thought responsible and decided to stay alive to spite them. Psychological problems, emotional problems and despair can be a strong impetus to suicide, but then so can resolving yourself to remain alive to punish those who don't care. TO tmsry11: You wrote: Putting your-self in shoes of a sick patient, sick family - who has time to pose racist questions concerning an NFL football team? __________________________________________________________- Was it ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to belittle our concerns with your inclusion of the NFL controversy? You are NOT a Ph.D. in psychology and it's clear to anyone who reads the articles here and reads your comments that you still have a bone to pick. This is NOT the time nor the place. You need to learn RESPECT and when to bring up an issue.

builds-the-fire's picture
Submitted by builds-the-fire on
I think these articles are a great start, and I'm looking forward to the reading the rest of them.

sweetmaw52's picture
Submitted by sweetmaw52 on
I just want to make a comment about suicide even for the elderly. I am 62 years old but, I lost my husband on May 9, 2014 and lost my oldest daughter who was 38 years old on June 24, 2014. I watched my husband die at home and I have the memories of my daughter being there with me and believe me, I have thought of suicide as well. I get extremely lonely even though I have family near me and that doesn't help me having them there. But, I always talk myself out of it and there is one thing that I do know. I know what it's like being at the edge of actually killing yourself, that is very scary to actually thinking of doing yourself in. I belong to another reservation and suicide does happen here as well and the awful part is, I understand why they actually did it because I have been there.