Can We Honor Native American Day by Doing Something About the Suicide Crisis?

The nation’s founding citizens suffer the country’s highest rates of self-killing.

Native American Suicide Rates Eyed in National Suicide Prevention Week

Children take pictures outside a Native American celebration. (Photo: Getty Images)

Native American Day is a California state holiday (with versions in Tennessee and South Dakota) to honor Native American cultures and their contributions to the individual states and to the country as a whole.

The date to celebrate the greatness of America’s original settlers falls this year on September 28, but a block of time set aside earlier this month—National Suicide Prevention Week, which began September 9—is sadly applicable to an unfortunate legacy being borne by the country’s orginal real estate owners.

Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the country, and suffer particularly among youth suicide deaths.

MORE: Native American Communities Suffer Most From Climate Change

“During 2005–2009, the highest suicide rates for those ages 10-24 years were among the American Indian/Alaskan Natives,” reads a summary of data from a Centers for Disease Control report detailing trends in American suicide. (2009 is the latest data available from the organization.)

And that rate wasn’t just a little higher than other sectors: The suicide rate for Native American youths was more than twice as high as the next-highest ethnicity, non-Hispanic whites, and more than three times higher than any other minority. 

“It is estimated that 14 to 27 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native adolescents have attempted suicide,” reads the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

“It’s time that people start seeing the real values of our way of life,” said Hope4Alaska founder Tessa Baldwin.

Across all ages, Native Americans in 2005-2009 died by thier own device at a rate of 17.48 people per 100,000, well over the next-highest rate of 15.99 of whites. No other group had a rate even half that, CDC numbers show.

(Incidentally, men are nearly four times as likely to commit suicide than women across most groups.)

“We know the many challenges faced by American Indian and Alaska Native youth,” reads the American Indian/Alaska Native National Suicide Prevention Strategic Plan.

“The physical, environmental, social, and psychological conditions that confront Indian Country are well documented. Geographically isolated reservations may amplify these risks and contribute to a sense of hopelessness among young people. While some may find the resources to cope, others fail to receive the care they need.”

That care, luckily, is within reach for many Native Americans thanks to programs like the Center for Native American Youth and Hope4Alaska, two youth-oriented native groups (along with this looooooong list of resources from the Indian Health Service) trying to help Native youth.

This list of resources is also good.

“It may live with our generation, and our parents generation, but we have the tools and resources to change it for the next,” Hope4Alaska founder and recent high school graduate Tessa Baldwin wrote on her group’s blog. “It’s time that people start seeing the real values of our way of life.”

Baldwin is one of a raft of young Native Americans trying to tackle the problem. The Center for Native American Youth also points to the story of Dirk Whitebreast, who ran 10 marathons in a month to raise awareness of suicide prevention.

Native issues are not far from the national consciousness. Denise Juneau, a democratic delegate, spoke at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month and U.S. Health and Human Services director Kathleen Sebelius recently took a spin through Native communities and health centers.

Part of Sebelius’s message in that swing was that funding for social programs like those that keep Native support centers afloat is in the crosshairs in times of tight budgets. Indeed, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee claim that the major budget overhaul proposed by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan would cut $637 million from Indian Health Services.

A partisan snipe? Possibly. Either way health resources for Native Americans can be hard to come by, the 2012 National Suicide Prevention Strategy says. 

“Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, few resources are devoted to the health needs of the urban AI/AN population,” the Strategy concludes.

Still, awareness is part of the solution, and documentarians have been out on reservations tackling the problem.

Breathe Again: Heartbreak and Hope in Alaska is a new documentary that deals with suicide in Alaskan tribes and villages. The film has a Kickstarter page that appeals for more funding to promote the film, if you want to get involved.

Another documentary, Rape on the Reservation, deals with difficult Native issues that need more light shed on them. Rape in Native lands is a prominent problem, even as some remote community shelters face closure.

If you feel that America's treatment of its native population is an ongoing shame, share this post on Facebook, Twitter or just talking with your friends.

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