Health sovereignty

Colonialism is a public health problem

More focus needed on social determinants of Indigenous youth suicides, not statistics
Photo: David Stanley

Attawapiskat has raised the alarm regarding youth suicides, but it is one part of a wave of self-inflicted violence across First Nations and Inuit peoples. Missing in all the conversations of Indigenous youth suicides is the dominant and abetting role of colonialism and the counteracting role of cultural continuity.

I see Indigenous youth finding empowerment through the resurgence of ancestral-based practices such as drum making, dancing, and modern-day potlatches, just as our ancestors did before colonialism disrupted our daily foundations of togetherness. This helps prevent or mitigate feelings of hopelessness and despair.

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Indigenous youth suicide is a focus for me. I have survived dark times that led to suicidal thoughts. I am a survivor of great atrocities. I am a descendent of my ancestors, many of whom were murdered by Canada. I am Hul’quim’num. My people are often referred to as Coast Salish, but this is an inaccurate settler term. We are indeed coastal peoples, ocean dwellers, and travel by way of a canoe. But we are Hul’quim’num, not Canada’s First Nation.

And we are more than statistics.

Inside the Westernized classrooms I sit in each morning at the University of Northern British Columbia, discussions of suicide are largely fixated on Indigenous youth suicide rates.

Attawapiskat: Let’s make it better together

There's more to mental illness than biology

One study using data from 1999 to 2009 showed that “suicide was the second leading cause of death” for American Indian and Alaska Native youth (15 to 24 years old). These kinds of reports perpetuate stereotypes and stigma about Indigenous youth mental health. I fear that mental health prevention programs are blocked because of the merit that statistics hold in educational institutions.

The root of the problem: suffering stems from the colonization of North America.

Statistics appear to be the cure in the sense that research is considered a priori. Linking poverty, employment, and class as determinants of mental health remains a focus, a method, and a solution in Western medicine. Likewise, Western health practices rarely address the realities of Indigenous youth. In my university classrooms, healing is focused on Western medicine and doctors as a way to treat medical problems.

All of this ignores the root of the problem: suffering stems from the colonization of North America. Colonization is a health determinant, and we need more Indigenous healing so that Indigenous peoples can find solutions in our own way.

Youth displacement from culture

Another ignored root of Indigenous youth suicide is intergenerational trauma. Grief can easily be carried through the genetics of a family and passed down from grandparents to parents to children. In fact, scholars point to evidence at the cellular level, where powerful environmental stressors can leave an imprint or “mark” on epigenome-cellular genetic material that is carried into future generations, with devastating consequences.

Holistic approaches to youth suicide prevention must include rediscovering smudge, sweat, and pipe ceremonies. Historically, all cultural ceremonial practices were outlawed (including regalia and dancing), but these practices are experiencing a resurgence today. During the 1800s, British laws ripped so much way from us and stripped our foundations. This colonial push led to many horrible events, altering Indigenous histories with effects still rippling today. Indigenous youth and their notions of what it means to live and thrive (with the natural environment around them) have been dramatically affected.

For Indigenous societies, the lack of access to traditional healers — each distinct from one Indigenous village to the next — is a fundamental loss. In the absence of cultural practices, Indigenous youths are faced with the sole option of holding in their anger and sadness, which leads to contemplation of, attempted, or completion of suicide.

The pain and grief that Indigenous youth harbour will sometimes become so much that they will feel isolated, perhaps even within the community. If this is you, I urge you to reach out and talk to an Elder. Living outside of the world of being Indigenous, people carry these struggles heavily, for they are incredibly painful. Suicide may appear to be your only option, but there must be another way to curb these tragic emotions that colonization forced into our daily functions. Look to language-rebuilding efforts, youth drum groups, carving, painting, ancestral ways of building homes, canoe journeys, canoe building. Something must be done to recharge how we viewed the world before contact with European “explorers.”

Given their displacement from culture, we must respect the grieving process of Indigenous youth who have discovered the lasting damages that have stemmed from colonization. Their traumas cannot be taken lightly.

The trap of homogenization

There is another risk in overusing statistics to explain suffering among Indigenous youth, which scholars Michael J. Chandler and Christopher E. Lalonde have noted. Many Indigenous communities differ from each other, have their own understandings of suffering and healing, and cannot be compared using numbers. For example, Cree and Hul’qumi’num peoples have different health models for holistic well-being. Many Cree communities use sweats and pipe ceremonies to help cleanse the spirit, whereas Hul’qumi’num peoples approach cleansing ceremonies through cedar brushings and funeral “burnings.”

There’s a dire need to rebuild health sovereignty for all Indigenous peoples.

“The idea of simply jamming all of these unique peoples together into one catchall common denominator, with an eye toward computing some overall national or provincial suicide rate that is largely empty of meaning, borders on the bizarre,” said Chandler and Lalonde.

The reasons for Indigenous youth suicide must be understood as specific to each community, which must mount a collective effort to help youth on their healing journey. The goal is to help create cultural resiliency in resistance to the flood of colonization.

Health sovereignty

Current policies simply disregard what is rooted underneath Indigenous youth suicide and other major issues such as residential schools, Indian hospitals, and alcohol and drug abuse. Colonization perpetuates suicide and is a core health determinant for Indigenous populations. Prevention strategies fill pages with numbers, but leave out this factor.

There’s a dire need to rebuild health sovereignty for all Indigenous peoples. This means in their own way through their own lens, which will help establish strong foundations for a pedagogy of traditional healing. In any Indigenous community I have visited, decolonization relies on rebuilding language, following in the footsteps of our ancestors, and respecting the natural environment around us. To live is largely seen in Indigenous communities as working to bring back a holistic balance to our societies and be properly actualized in the way of our ancestors, respectfully.

In order to decolonize the medical system and ensure multi-level implementation within Western society, education for the next generation of health practitioners is paramount. Teaching Indigenous methodology and holistic approaches that originate in Indigenous peoples’ ancestral practices will challenge Western thinking. Otherwise, Western medicine “prioritize(s) the knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking valued by the dominant culture,” as writer Christine Rogers Stanton put it.

The hereditary design of my Hul’qumi’num ancestors is a bloodline that cannot be found in suicide prevention reports. It is a wealth of knowledge passed down from one family member to the next. This ancestrally rooted knowledge system has been slowly lost because of colonization (kind of like leaping from the plane and bringing the wrong parachute) and the separation of ancestrally taught Indigenous leaders (the parachute we need desperately) and “Indian doctors” from their respected communities (they have all but vanished).

Indigenous people are making progress in fighting off the historic approach of Western health practitioners, those who indoctrinate through the dogma of big pharma as an ailment to suffering. The decolonization of health and healing is slowly taking root.

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