Thing About Skins: Deadly Epidemic in Real Time: It's Happening to Native Youth Right Now Before Our Very Eyes

Deadly Epidemic in Real Time: It's Happening to Native Youth Right Now Before Our Very Eyes

Gyasi Ross

QUICK STORY: I try to be a student of history and, as such, one of my pet interests is reading about epidemics during colonial times. A morbid curiosity, definitely, but disease was the biggest reason that Manifest Destiny worked, not military brilliance or superior physicality. Nope. Disgusting diseases. Therefore, I always was curious about how Native people reacted when we learned a devastating disease was coming–how did it change our behavior? What type of preparation did we do—pre Airborne and Emergen-C—to get ready for this battle?

For example, there’s the story about the Chinook people, who when Lewis and Clark visited them in 1805, were one of the largest tribes on the west coast (numbering some sixteen thousand people). A particularly nasty white trader named “Dominis” spread a disease on the Oregon coast in 1829 called “Ague Fever” (which was probably measles) and it wiped out over thirteen thousand of the sixteen thousand Chinooks.  I further read about town criers in Native villages during these times of epidemics; the town criers were the journalists of the day who made sure that all the villagers knew what was going on. That was their job; they would soberly make sure that everyone knew that something terrible was coming.

They were the bearers of bad news. I’m sure they didn’t want to do this, but they had no choice; the survival of the people lay in the balance.

They still had to let everyone know.

Based upon the horrible number of fatalities you had to know that there was a pretty good chance you were going to get infected. And you also had to know that if you did get infected, there was a pretty good shot you were gonna die.  

Genocide was happening in real time and it was probably terrible news to have to deliver. Yet, it was only by delivering this terrible news that some of the villagers were able to survive. Otherwise, everybody woulda stayed and not known about the epidemic until it was too late.

Delivering that terrible news literally saved Native people. 

Why am I telling you this?

Our ancestors could not pretend that the imminent plagues and destruction that was upon them was not there. No, they had to be sober and vigilant and develop a plan in life and death conditions. If they hadn’t thought and spoken clearly about it and developed a clear plan, it may have meant the death of the whole gene pool.

Epidemic. Deadly. Ravaging Native communities.  

Our generation likewise faces life and death circumstances and an epidemic, except sometimes it doesn’t seem like we’re doing as much about it as we could.

See, our kids are killing themselves.  Frequently.  En masse. According a recent Center for Disease Control study entitled “Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Aged 18-24,” when Native people commit suicide, 40% (!!) of those are between the ages of 15-24.  That is starkly different than national averages for other ethnicities where most people who commit suicide are middle-aged.  As sad as that is, it makes sense; mid-life crisis, people lose hope and make unfortunate decisions sometimes.

But for Native people, it’s our children who are losing hope during some of the most amazing times of their lives; they’re killing themselves three times as much as anybody else in this country.  

We’ve known that suicide is bad within Native communities. Horrible. We’ve known this for quite some time. But there are, of course, other things that need attention within our communities as well. Therefore, we find a lot of other things to talk about—gambling, marijuana, mascots, “Pocahotties” or other identity issues.  And that’s cool—those are worthwhile topics that certainly should be explored and discussed and I’m thankful so many people write about them so much.  

Good stuff.

But suicide, especially by our young folks, speaks to something incredibly wrong internally within our communities. These kids are slipping through the cracks in the very worst way possible and it feels like we have an obligation to lift them up and write and talk and study and pontificate and work about that issue at least as much as all the rest.  It feels like we’re watching a genocide, a lost generation, and not acknowledging that it’s happening.

From what I’ve read, it’s almost entirely preventable.  

Number one, if we’re able to identify who is at risk, then there’s the possibility for intervention. Bringing up the conversation never hurts—but we have to be talking about it to start to identify who’s at risk. Number two, statistically mental illness is a role in almost 90 percent of suicides, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Moreover, the conditions are often treatable. However, within our communities mental health diagnosis and treatment rarely happen because IHS is chronically underfunded. Specifically, IHS spends only about $3,000 per Native person per year compared to the roughly $8,000 spent on healthcare by everyone else. 

That means that it’s treatable. This huge, scary and tragic epidemic that affects Native people in WILDLY disproportionate numbers is treatable. Of course there’s work to do for our communities and tribal councils to push Congress to do their freakin’ job and increase the amount of money spent on Native mental health care. But that will only happen if we realize that, yes, there is in fact a disease, a condition, that is wreaking havoc on and killing our communities.  After that, like our ancestors, we can formulate a plan of how best to attack this disease and survive this epidemic.  

We can do something about this. Native people. Us. There is no cavalry coming to save our kids—we’re the only ones who can.  But we have to acknowledge it and work…

We have an opportunity to meaningfully learn from our ancestors here: effectively delivering this horrible news about what suicide is REALLY doing to our communities could save all of our children.








Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
Smallpox????What does smallpox have to do with youth suicides in 2015? I don't know. But the secret is out, suicides and mental health services are a national epidemic! It isn't just exclusive to "skins" "natives" "indians", etc. This suicide 'epidemic' your preaching about now really doesn't matter considering the politics of Mascots and the Washington Redskins (doesn't it?). If your writing is true, correct, and sincere, would preach to the targeted masses the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation is good spirited and kind heartened in donating thousands of dollars to Native Youth? See: We Are Not Victims: Quechan People, Suicide, and the Redskins Gyasi Ross 9/10/14 Read more at If your answer is No or you attempt to rationalize, then your article is just…..words.

Digi Frennson
Digi Frennson
Submitted by Digi Frennson on
Many years ago I knew a guy fro the Blackfeet Tribe. Unfortunately I only know the name he used online, "Techno Dragon" and he was a member of my "Seattle Dragons" group. I forget his words, but he told me was going to do the deed as well. I only saw him once after that, but he seemed happy to see me. I've always wondered if he was still around, or if he decided to take a Long Walk in order to find himself rather then killing himself.

moonlion's picture
Submitted by moonlion on
tmsyr11 - why do you come here to always make such unpleasant and unkind comments?

onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
I have severe and chronic PTSD, someone tried to kill me when I was 9 years old. Now at the age of 64 I understand that I cannot take my life because I don't possess it like an object, life possesses me. I cannot hold life in my hand like ball and then give it to someone else to play a game with. Life holds me in it's hand and leads me through life's lessons. Maybe this will help someone out there, I don't know, I hope so. I don't care who you are, life is hard for everyone or those that see. We all need help from time to time and to know you are being held by the hand of life can give comfort. Does this help you find an answer or provide a path?

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To tmsyr11: I have no words for you. Suffice it to say that I would LOVE to meet you in person.

onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
Michael Madrid...may I join you? I promise to conduct myself accordingly...Peace

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
M&Ms:you already have seen me. Every time you look at that dogface in the AM, when you see the better (honest/true) half, there am I "working, succeeding, and being happy".

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Working? Succeeding? Happy? You sound like anything BUT, tmsyr11. You sound like a bitter, angry man who isn't content unless you're spreading your own special brand of cheer among people who clearly don't like you. Two people here have already mentioned you negatively and you've even caused a Staff Writer here to chime in on your skewed logic. ____________________________________________________________ You've GOT to be a reincarnated White guy! I've NEVER seen a Native this intent on being where he's not wanted.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To onedman: Sure! The more the merrier! Many Native nations didn't have written laws because chastisement by members of those exhibiting detrimental behavior could usually keep people in line. Perhaps tmsyr11 just doesn't realize how abrasive he is and would benefit from being chastised through direct confrontation or just by ignoring him. He's clearly a troll so the latter tactic might be the one to use . . . we'll see.

Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
tmsyr11 - You're a reactionary. Bet you think Fox News is the only source of truthful news and that either Trump or Cruz are the men who will save America. How do I know? Your deliberate misunderstanding of this article. I've seen it on other sites when reactionaries post. Your (claimed) belief that Snyder's attempt to buy goodwill is a legitimate effort to help Native Americans.

red2000's picture
Submitted by red2000 on
Reactionary .......... I like this word. I actually like it better than status quo ante.