Photo courtesy Armando Martinez
Oglala Lakota graphic artist Walt Pourier, right, speaks to students at the Denver Art Museum in February 2013. Pourier is the founder and executive director of the Stronghold Society, a nonprofit working to inspire creativity and confidence in Native American youth.

Manning: Could Art, Creativity Stave Indian Youth Suicide Epidemic?

Sarah Sunshine Manning

The youth crisis in Indian country is palpable.

Far too many of our most precious generation are riddled with sadness and despair at a depth that is coarsely unjust for their age. 

Directly resulting from centuries of historical trauma, oppressive federal Indian policy, and repeated systematic assaults on the tribal family structure, Native communities struggle to overcome layer upon layer of social ills.

In recent decades, the despair has trickled down most tragically to our adolescent generation. This can be seen in the unsettling rates of substance abuse, self-harm, suicide among youth not even yet in their teen years, and the lowest high school completion rates nationally. 

Without question, the youth need so much more of our attention, and urgently. Throwing money at them will not solve their problems. They yearn for inspiration, deeply profound inspiration, and an excitement for life which is so strong, that they fight every day to stay on this beautiful earth with us, to grow old, and to enjoy all that life has to offer them.

And while there is not any one single answer to the youth crisis, there are many simple yet impactful adjustments that all families and households and can make very easily, and with little to no money at all.

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One very effective way to facilitate such an inspiration and reconnection to personal power is through a practice that many abandon during their early childhood years – the use of imagination and the regular exercise of personal creativity.

Sure, it may sound simple, and perhaps even inconsequential, but take a moment to entertain a very exciting possibility.

Consider how even as adults we benefit from creativity. Many of us can likely identify with the benefits of creating something from nothing for our loved ones, and the resulting goodness we feel afterward when the finished product is before us. Whether it is a delicious meal, or a piece of beadwork, the creative process itself is meditative and spiritual, and even more gratifying when we finish and our relatives get to enjoy it. 

But to bring the focus back to our children, think of the most automatic smiles that come from our little ones when they create something and share it with their friends and loved ones. Whether it is a colored picture, or a fort made of blankets and chairs, their eyes light up and they stand tall each time they are told, “Wow, you are so creative!” or “Did you make that? You are so talented!”  Then, even more magic happens, and they go create something new, again and again. Their confidence grows, and so does their excitement about everyday life.

By exercising their creative abilities, children and youth tap into the realization that they have something extremely unique to offer the world, and even more significantly, they have power. When they nurture their creative abilities regularly, an enormous sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy emerge. They discover that they possess unlimited potential. They see a world that is theirs to shape and explore with their own imagination and attention. They develop a passion for life and an excitement for their future that cannot be diminished by anything outside of themselves.

There is an overwhelming amount of research that affirms the many benefits of creativity and the ways in which it contributes to sustained mental health, goal-setting, and goal attainment. 

Oglala Lakota graphic artist Walt Pourier, left, speaks to students at the Denver Art Museum in February 2013. Pourier is the founder and executive director of the Stronghold Society, a nonprofit working to inspire creativity and confidence in Native American youth. Photo courtesy Armando Martinez.

In four longitudinal studies, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that students who have access to the arts and creative opportunities also tend to have better academic results, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement. These results proved especially true for students of low socioeconomic status. 

The New York Center for Arts Education similarly identifies benefits related to exposing children to art and opportunities for creativity. Among the benefits identified, children and youth can think with an open mind, analyze and interpret, express feelings, develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills; they discover that there is more than one right answer, they build confidence, and they connect to community. 

Yet not surprisingly, all of the aforementioned benefits were present in droves in traditional tribal societies where creativity and creation took place daily. Indigenous wisdom has long held this to be true, when we exercise our creativity, we are connecting to something much greater than ourselves. 

In perspective, indigenous people have honored creation since our own creation. We honor creation through a wide array of traditional practices.  We tell creation stories to remind us of our origins. We create things in our daily lives to remember those origins and to connect to the most sacred aspects of our spirit and our universe. We honor and value the creative powers of women for their ability to bring life into the world. We dance and sing to honor our creation narratives. And each time we acknowledge creation, we reconnect to an internal power source that is beyond comprehension, a power that has been with us since time immemorial. 

Creativity and creative expression provide youth with opportunities to connect to that power that lies dormant within them. Creativity allows for them to channel their emotions positively and experience the power of their minds and fully engaged spirits.  Then, they look forward to the next idea, and the next project that they will imagine into reality. They become captivated by their own abilities, and encouraged by their own strength.

From the young writers, to the sketchers, the painters, the graphic designers, the dancers, the beaders, the singers, the song makers, and the list goes on and on-  they have all found strength in their abilities to create something uniquely their own, while tapping into an infinite source of creative potential.

Much like our ancestors, youth who exercise their creativity embark on a very powerful meditative process that calms the mind, soothes the spirit, and solidifies connection to their inner strength.  Within moments of beginning their creation, they become immersed in a sacred practice. Verse by verse, thread by thread, bead by bead, they connect to a power within themselves that only they could access.

Creativity is not only found in the arts. Creativity can also involve the development of an effective play on the basketball court, a creative solution to a problem, a movement, making up a unique and fun game, planning a meal, cooking. ... Again, the possibilities are endless. 

We are all creators, and when we encourage our youth to internalize this concept, we empower them in a deeply influential way. They are given hope, and a hope in themselves that they so urgently need. They come to find their own agency as they discover a power within themselves so immensely strong, that it cannot be diminished by any outside circumstance. They realize that the future is theirs to shape, and with their innate resiliency and creative capacity, anything is possible, and any obstacle can be overcome. We need simply to teach them how to access and activate their own power, and in turn, they activate an inner compass that they can rely throughout the course of their life.

The next time you visit with your children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, venture to ask them, “What are you going to create today?” or, “What should we create together?” You will likely find yourself pleasantly surprised with the results.  It is an exciting and powerful thought to imagine what tribal communities might look like tomorrow, if each of our youth took action today – confidently, fearlessly, and eagerly – and created something beautiful, something that they are all proud of.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.

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