Suicide raised as major issue during NCAI's annual convention

President Brian Cladoosby speaks at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in San Diego, California, on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

An issue that didn't appear anywhere on the agenda for the National Congress of American Indians dominated discussion at the opening of the organization's annual meeting on Monday.

Tribal leaders from Alaska and South Dakota took initiative in response to a crisis affecting their communities. Several mentioned an incident that occurred just days ago at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage.

As AFN drew to a close on Saturday, 49-year-old Anthony Dean Choquette committed suicide at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. Dozens of people, including some now at NCAI, saw the tragedy unfold or knew people who were deeply affected by it.

"One of my childhood friends witnessed it. My cousin witnessed it and it shook them up to have something like that done in such a public matter," said Benjamin Miyasato, the treasurer of the Sitka Tribe. "That is painful. Suicide is very painful."

Young members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe held a walk in Parmelee, South Dakota, to raise awareness about suicide. Photo by Vi Waln / Lakota Country Times

Addressing suicide was a topic of significant discussion at AFN's meeting last week. It came as Hooper Bay, a Yup’ik community, saw four young people take their lives in less than two weeks.

The issue, though, was was not on the schedule for NCAI's meeting, the largest inter-tribal gathering in the lower 48. Attendees only came forward during discussions on other issues, prompting one to question why the organization wasn't focusing on a problem that the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recently said was worse than previously reported.

"I see it in papers but I don't see it here in the National Congress of American Indians," said Bennett “Tuffy” Sierra, an elder from the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

Sierra's community on the Pine Ridge Reservation has experienced nearly 20 suicides and more than 250 attempts since December 2014. Nearly all occurred among youth, with some as young as 10 years old attempting to take their lives.

Youth participate in a healing camp that was organized to address suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Cindy Giago

"There's no hope for a lot of our people," said Sierra, who traced the problem to alcoholism, drug abuse and historical trauma.

According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, the suicide rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 15-24 are the highest in the U.S. Native men recorded 34.3 deaths per 100,000 and Native women recorded 9.9 but even those figures are "underreported by 30 percent," researchers said.

"Suicide rates for AIAN young adults are likely to be underestimated," the September 2015 report stated.

Mary Smith, a member of the Cherokee Nation who serves as the new deputy director at the Indian Health Service, shared the frustrations voiced by tribal leaders. Pointing to statistics dating back decades, she said it sometimes seems as if Indian Country is not making any progress in addressing health disparities.

"I think about it every single day," Smith, who described her position as a political appointment, told NCAI. "I think, why is this happening to Americans -- fellow Americans -- who live here?"

ESCAPE, a film by youth from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado.

Manuel Heart, the chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, believes solutions to the problem will come from local communities. Youth on his reservation created a short film, titled ESCAPE, that tackles suicide, drug abuse and other issues facing the reservation.

“One suicide is too many for any tribe," said Heart, who also blamed alcoholism and bullying for contributing to the crisis.

Mike Williams, a mental health counselor from the village of Akiak in Alaska, agreed with that assessment. He's calling for all tribal leaders in his state to come together for a summit to discuss the underlying causes of suicide. He said decades of negative federal and state policies have contributed to a lack of adequate resources in Indian Country.

"We're the last of the Trail of Tears," Williams said, referring to the policy of forced removal in the Lower 48. "Highest in the world of suicides occurring right now."

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