Warrior Down: Death and Dying in Indian Country

Mike Myers

I want to thank Gyasi Ross for the article, “Deadly Epidemic in Real Time: It's Happening to Native Youth Right Now Before Our Very Eyes” addressing the critical issue of youth suicide that is occurring throughout our territories.

And I have to agree that while this is not a new issue it is one we haven’t really addressed with the vigor, consciousness and deliberation required to bring it to an end. My experience tells me that’s because it is so close to home, so personal and something that requires that we take a high degree of responsibility for.

Growing up I never heard about a suicide until I was 16 and a friend ended their life by hanging. As it is whenever this visits us it brings shock, confusion, anger and wondering as to how could this happen.

During the past 30 years it has become way too common, not only at home, but across Indian Country. There isn’t a community that I’ve visited or worked in that isn’t struggling with this issue.

Gyasi states: “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.”

In my last article I wrote about the word “anomie”, which means “Collapse of social stability from an erosion of social standards. A state of alienation experienced by an individual or group.” There are another set of words I want to add to this concept that complement it and enhance its relevance to us – “ethno stress”. I came across these words when I was researching the work being done with the children of Holocaust survivors. Ethno stress is defined as “The individual/collective stress experienced by persons who are cast in a “minority” status within a larger entity due to their particular ethnic, national, linguistic, and/or racial characteristics”.

In their book Native American Postcolonial Psychology, Duran and Duran (1975) refer time and again to the “soul wound” sustained by Native people cross-generationally.

These three concepts complete the picture of the challenge we face – how do we reverse the collapse of social stability while rising above the feelings of inferiority caused by ethno stress and compounded by the soul wounds we have all experienced?

Gyasi cites a recent Center for Disease Control study entitled, “Racial and Gender Disparities in those between the ages of 15-24. What is not being reported is the onset of conditions that culminate in a suicide and these conditions start at a much younger age.

Suicide is not a spontaneous event it is the last act in a scenario that has progressed to this moment. Suicide is an outcome of sustained disempowerment, oppression, hopelessness and irreconcilable loss or losses. We’ve heard the term “post traumatic stress disorder”, well I think it’s a complete misnomer when it comes to these issues which are “chronic traumatic stress disorders”. “Post” implies something occurred and is over, but this is the reality of our world.

Dr. Darryl Tonemah (Kiowa, Comanche, Tuscarora) explains four key elements about trauma: “1. Trauma is not just an event, it becomes a lifestyle of anger, hyper-vigilance and self-medication. 2. Trauma left to its own devices will find ways to survive. 3. Trauma “re-creates” the sense or feeling of being overwhelmed in trauma victims. 4. Trauma is not in the event, because once the event is over, the trauma is stored in me.”

The being “stored in me” is important to understand. Elders have taught us that there are four realms of memory – mind, body, heart and spirit. The two that are the least reliable are the mind and heart memories. The body and spirit memories are most accurate because the stored memory becomes part of our “blood memory” or DNA.

The work of Dr. Tassy Parker (Seneca) at the University of New Mexico has focused on the intersection of historical trauma and epigenetics. This work shows that chronic traumatic events can trigger chemical changes to the outer coating of our DNA. These molecular “scars” – the soul wounds - are passed on to our offspring. This is how Historic Trauma takes hold not only in individuals but whole nations.

The good news is that these Indigenous folks, and a whole lot more, are working hard at understanding this phenomenon and identifying ways to overcome the traumas and maintain our inherent resilience.

I believe it begins with re-thinking the systems that impact our lives – governance, economic, education, familial, social, health, cultural and spiritual. The externally imposed systems have been the sources of our traumas for generations. To break these cycles, it begins with the important question we need to ask ourselves – if we were to do this our way, what would that look like?

I also believe the systems we re-institute or create need to be from “doorway to doorway”, from our arrival to our departure. And they must re-incorporate ceremony and celebration. From the moment of our birth our growth and development has been marked by ceremony and celebration. One of the major developmental ceremonies is the “Becoming Man/Becoming Woman” or Rites of Passage. In my culture our word for this translates to “Days of Decision”.

Puberty marks the time when our powers to be perpetuators of Life come alive. It marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. We also understand that it’s a time when many important questions begin swirling in our minds – who am I, why am I here, what’s my purpose, why do these things happen to me, etc, etc.

Traditionally the process of transition would take about a year during which there were fasts and time spent with elders and respected people who could assist in clarifying the answers. At the end there was a ceremony to mark the completion of the transition. It was also a time to leave behind anything from our childhood we do not want to carry into our adulthood.

For a long time we have been going through this critical time totally on our own. Only a very few lucky enough to have people in their families who remember these processes have gone through this time of change with assistance.

One of the Teachings explains that if left alone, the person will arrive at their own conclusions based on the trajectory of their life up that point. So if theirs has been a life filled with trauma, abuse and loss, don’t be surprised by the conclusions they reach about where their life is headed and what’s expected of them.

Assisting with these transitions is an inherent responsibility within the cultures we originate from. I want to extend my thanks and respect to all of the families who are bringing these ways back. But they are not the norm, yet. If something happens with our kids the system that kicks in is the western system not an Indigenous one and this is where change has to occur.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.

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Sammy7's picture
“To break these cycles, it begins with the important question we need to ask ourselves – if we were to do this our way, what would that look like? A good example of historical destruction and trauma were the Cherokee People of the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. After repeated battles, crushed and dispirited, the Cherokees ceded large tracts of land, and European civilizing influence became predominant. Civilized goods such as hatchets, knives, clothes, farming implements, spinning wheels etc., and the adoption of the Christian religion became increasingly commonplace. In essence, the traditional role’s of the Elders and the Clan system began to crumble. That Traditional system, developed over millennia, provided a pathway for a worthwhile sacred and meaningful existence from birth to death. It can be defined as the Spirit world view. Now it was largely gone replaced by a western world view based on science. That westernizing process has continued among the Cherokees, defined by political Tribal splits, and rapid assimilation among the larger body of Cherokees. Today, fewer than one in four Cherokees remain Traditional in their beliefs. Worse yet, the Traditional Cherokees are looked upon by assimilated Cherokees as quaint or worse. Yet, in my view, the Traditional culture carries the heart of the Cherokee people within it. Sure the Traditionals have changed somewhat too, but they have managed to retain and pass along their life giving culture absent Christianity. Our Traditional Tribal beliefs, including our Clans, Elders, rituals, ceremonies, and myths resonate strongly today having adjusted to the modern world. It is the Indian Traditional belief in Spirit embodied in it’s life enhancing culture that is absent from the Indian youth of today. It is our job to rekindle it within them. Christians, do not stand in our way as we seek to save our children. We accept that you have chosen to follow the teachings of a middle eastern prophet, Jesus, as your God. Is in not wrong to follow the Christian greed for souls that professes Christ as the only means to reaching a good after life? Give we Traditionals the same respect that we offer to you, and do not press those genocidal beliefs upon our children, then we will reveal the self respect that lies within the blood and spirit memory of our children.