Suicide as Genocide

Ruth Hopkins
February 10, 2013

Genocide has found a new disguise: that of adolescent suicide. According to the Indian Health Service, Natives who fall between 10 and 24 years of age have the highest rate of suicide of all racial groups. Despite this epidemic, we’re still failing to address it head on.

Talking about suicide is difficult. There’s a stigma attached to it. Those who’ve attempted suicide are often branded as attention seekers. Others view them as selfish, or insane. However, the explanation for why one attempts to take their own life is much more complicated, especially where Natives are concerned.

While a suicide attempt may, for example, manifest itself as a final solution to being bullied, or heartbreak over a broken relationship, the act itself is a culmination of events that took place over an extended period. The young person who commits suicide has been fighting to stay alive for a very long time, often suffering in silence.

Native youth, especially those living on a reservation, face a litany of serious issues that put them at risk for suicide, including a family history of it, substance abuse, depression, stressful life events (like domestic violence, abuse, neglect, or living in a crime-addled, impoverished community), a history of previous suicide attempts, incarceration, or exposure to the suicidal behavior of others. All of these factors are listed by the CDC as increasing the likelihood of suicidal behavior. Every one of these factors may also be a direct result of intergenerational trauma that our youth face just by virtue of them being Native and alive in 2013.

These grim, complex challenges would be daunting for an adult to overcome- yet we expect our youth to face them, and overall we don’t provide them with an adequate support system. It’s no wonder that many of our young people are stuck in survival mode.

Sometimes the fear of death is outweighed by the pain of existence. When I attempted suicide as an adolescent, my life was spinning out of control. I had given birth just days before. My husband and I had broken up. I was jobless and dead broke. All my troubles were exaggerated by a recurring memory I had of being sexually assaulted several years earlier. I had never received counseling for it, and I blamed myself. I didn’t know that I was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I wasn’t equipped to deal with postpartum depression either. I had never even heard of either medical condition before I was diagnosed and treated for them, after my hospitalization.

When I attempted, I didn’t want to die. Hopeless, and alone, all I prayed for was an end to my misery. The seconds leading up to my attempt lasted an eternity. There was no sound- only the hollow thump of my heart behind its ribcage. I didn’t fully realize what I’d done until I woke up in the ambulance. A tribal cop’s voice shook as he held me and begged me not to close my eyes.

“Not again,” he cried.

Suicide is not romantic, and exacts no revenge. It’s an ugly, blunt stick. Just ask anyone who’s experienced the horror of finding the mangled body of a loved one who’s taken their own life. Did you know that when someone hangs themselves, their bowels evacuate? Having a large hollow tube rammed down your throat while a roomful of strangers watch you gag and vomit out of your nose is anything but glamorous. Others survive, but only as brain dead vegetables, or are disfigured for life. I was spared, in spite of myself.

Had I been successful, I never would have experienced the joy of raising my children, or being the first member of my family to graduate from college. I never would have become a science professor, or a Tribal Judge, or a published writer. Every single person I’ve been able to help since that day is a testimony to how thankful I am to the Creator to have survived my own demise.

Life has many peaks and valleys, and there are still thorns among the roses, but that fateful night’s seemingly unbearable pain was but a shadow compared to the sunrise I witnessed that next morning, hooked up to machines, scared for the life I suddenly held dear. After all these years, even if I had accomplished nothing at all, one more burst of laughter among friends—just one more spring rain—has made the entire journey worth it.

As Natives we can no longer afford to remain silent about the suicide epidemic befalling Indian country. While we rush to and fro, absorbed in our smartphones and lost in our own problems, it is preying on our children. We cannot continue to allow our youth to fall through the cracks of a broken healthcare system that fails to adequately detect mental health problems and treat them. Money and federal policy aren’t the final answer though. After all, time spent with a young person costs nothing, and that’s what they need most.

Suicide, at its core- is a crisis of spirit. Our sacred hoop needs mending. Youth instilled with the knowledge of what it means to be Native, and just how important they are to the future of our people, will not take their own lives. We must end this cultural hemorrhage, and live our values system. Losing just one more young life is too heavy a price.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, ethnoscientist, Tribal Judge for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the Tribal Colleges Liaison Manager for the University of North Dakota (UND) and North Dakota State University (NDSU) via North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Her first horror novella will be released in 2013. Follow her on Twitter.




Even though there might be several factors in young suicides on reservations. This is what I see in my own limited perspective. I have family where there is depression. Younger women get mixed up with bad young men, and they have children, and the fathers are either irresponsible, do drugs and don't take any interest in the kids. They are fed their depression and dignity loss on a daily basis by the government "taking care of them". No sense of dignity or accomplishment, that comes through self worth from building something yourself. In my own family the young women were told to marry another Indian, instead of marrying someone they might love. On some tribe the constant complaint of the communities are that "white people" are stealing our babies....but yet the tribal communities don't want the responsibility of the kids...so consequently they are shipped off to other foster homes who care for them. Than its more blame shifting to the evil white race which eventually culminates into a self hatred because of tribal fixation on physical blood standards which were white European anyway....and the cycle just keeps repeating itself.
Ruth Hopkins is to be commended for writing a very poignant piece on what has been an epidermic for a very long time. The pain and frustration that carries with it, years of psychological and institutional abuse is a legacy that can overwhelm many. For some, this ride called life just becomes to much. Save for certain traditional ceremonies that may or may not eliminate the scrooge of doubt, hate and self anger. In is a world that seems distant and uncaring that most people suffering have truly giving up on. The scars of abuse never truly heal and after a while all seems hopeless. Waiting for an answer may seem to some a little like waiting for Jesus. All the while, the person suffering is doubting and broken.
Two Bears Growling's picture
You are here for a reason sister. You are here to give a voice to the things so many people who feel hopeless & know no other way out of the pain to speak about. Hopelessness among our native communities is staggering. Until our native communities can drive out the drugs, drinking, the violence & abuse, not one thing is going to change. Our elders, councils, wise ones, healers, parents must stand up, legally take hold of those who are poisoning our people with drugs & alcohol & make an example of these evil ones. If not, this cycle of death will grow even bigger. I find too many times folks will not say anything because of who some is or a family is who is involved. This is not right. No one is above the words of our Creator regarding how we should live our lives. A life that makes the Great Spirit pleased. Without balance in our lives, our communities & our families, chaos is what results. Parents, your children are your priority; not parties, drugs & alcohol. The Creator has blessed you with the most precious gift of all in your life when He grants you a child. In everything you do, where you go & the words that come out of your mouth, let it show you are thankful for the Great Spirit's blessings in your life. Remember, the Great Spirit sees everything you do or think & hears every word that comes out of your mouth. Are you bringing shame to yourself, your family, your tribe & your family, or, are you bringing pride, respect, honor? Each life is like a pond & the things we do or say are like a stone cast into the water. The ripples that result in just one pebble thrown in affect every part of that pond.
Two Bears Growling
Adults need to take responsibility and accountabilty to teach our children the values of life itself. It is a gift. Children learn and see how we handle stress, fall down and get up again to transform our uglies to being wholesome.
Migwetch for your story Ruth. The spirits and traditional ways plus the right choices can help lead us on a positive path. So very glad you did. Stay Strong!!! Glen Douglas
Suicide is the end result of the mental programming of our Native People, from earliest times when Greed swept our lands and the "newcomers" wanted it by any means. "The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian" was the mantra of the times, which was certainly in the hearts of the vigilantes who killed then mutilated Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women, and children at Sand Creek. (during President Lincoln's administration). It was in the hearts of the soldiers who were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for killing unarmed Lakota at Wounded Knee, and it is in the hearts of those who continue to put down our people unless we are dancing for them. When we feel completely worthless the Evil has worked its way into our souls and we cannot bear to live anymore.
When will our people will understand that all the suicidal and all types crimes are not Human, but spiritual attacks. We are being spiritually destroy. By witchcraft, brujeria, santeria, spells, incantations, by all types of dark forces. Were are our real spiritual protectors, shamans, medicine men , high priests of our holy places.?? Were are the High Priests of the Great Spirit our Creator?? WE have walk away from our roots, and we are paying for our mistakes. Elija.
..."we're still failing to address it head on." Those are the last 8 words of your first paragraph. Interesting that no one has posted a comment. The reservation I live on has high suicide too. It got to the point to where I told my child, no more going to these funerals. It is not a place to hang out, and party, seeing 4 deaths in months is not healthy. There is nothing glamorous about completing a suicide, that is considered "loss of life," in some areas of the health field. It is also the end of a future blood line. Everyone has their ups and downs in life. As horrible as it is we have to pull through it. I think of my ancestors when they were transitioning on to reservation life, they had to overcome alot. Now we're fighting each other, where is this "it takes a community to raise a child" mentality. Tribal politicians are squandering money, lawlessness on reservations, loss of culture, language, etc.