Alfred Walking Bull: Let's open up about suicide in Indian Country

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Alfred Walking Bull

Talk about suicide
By Alfred Walking Bull (Sicangu Lakota)

September is Suicide Prevention Month. It's a misunderstood issue that continues to haunt Indian Country, whether through the loss of a child, spouse or friend, suicide has visited every family on the reservation.

The first time I heard the word suicide, my brother was either 15 or 16 years old. One of his best friends, Dean, had killed himself. That’s how mom put it to me, “he killed himself.”

Such a concept was foreign to me at that time, but I saw its after-effects. It was the first time I saw my brother cry.
 My brother and Dean were close. I don’t have many memories of him, but I knew my brother kept a small cadre of friends who raised hell from Upper Cut Meat to Milk’s Camp and everywhere in between, they were close.

So to see my hellbent brother cry was a paradigm shift: suicide makes other people cry.
 It’s a different death than most others. There’s an all-encompassing sense of responsibility and guilt. Whereas the death of an elder is expected or a car crash can be attributed to certain factors, suicide strikes at everyone. Echoes of “I should have,” or “If only,” ring through the minds of those who loved the dead.

As Native people, we want to understand why bad things happen the way they do, we want to know if there's blame to be had or something to learn from it. The current wisdom is that there was nothing more we could have done, it was up to the person who committed suicide to reach out. Still, it is small comfort.

The tables turned on me when in 2006. At that time, I lived off the reservation, feeling alone and without purpose and I spent several days in two mental health facilities for attempted suicide. The hows and whys aren’t relevant any longer, I don’t blame or fault anyone else for my own mental condition that fueled my own feelings of worthlessness and uselessness. I kept an internal tally of the things I thought I needed to make me happy and when those things began to dwindle, I despaired and made a conscious effort to end my life.

When I woke up, the friend whose apartment I rented was standing next to my bed. When I reached out to hug her, the restraints held back my arms. She began crying and I sobbed my apologies. I told her I just wanted to stop feeling, to stop suffering. She sat with me for hours as I rationalized my suicide attempt. Time has since claimed the wisdom she shared with me, but the thing that stands out is that someone did care; even though at the time, it wasn’t the person I expected to care, someone did care.

The thought that I would have ended my life scares the hell out of me to this day. In the nine years since that summer, I have experienced so much more life in the joys, victories, defeats and sorrows I’ve had that I still would not trade in for all the prosperity of a rich man. I have found friends and family who genuinely care about me and, what’s more, I care about enough to save them from the grief of suicide. It keeps me from despair and from being my own judge.

When I judge myself insufficient, I start down a path that my fallible human brain takes me down, telling me there’s never going to be a better day, that I’m never going to be enough or that I’m alone. Nothing is further from the truth. Even if it’s just one good friend or one family member, I know I’m never alone. My life doesn’t have to grand and powerful to be meaningful. Friends and family help me to understand I’m not the one who decides when my time has come. There is no better day I’ll have than tomorrow, because it’s always filled with hope and promise for a better day.

We have the tendency to believe that good Natives carry their problems silently, out of humility or stoicism or we channel our problems through work or find a way to dull and get away from them through alcohol or drugs. We carry our problems, silently, and that is what kills us. The best solution I've found to combating thoughts of suicide or self-harm have been to talk with someone about my thoughts and feelings because there is no more fertile ground for suicide than the echo chamber of my own mind. Whether I talk to friends, family or a mental health professional, I know that the problems I face are diminished by speaking them into the world and watching them be carried off in the breeze.

The Indian Health Service is by no means a great resource to rely on for anything bigger than emergency care, but it does have the theoretical capacity to offer mental health services. Even the most basic step toward talking about problems is a good step forward. In our spiritual practices, we have leaders who help us find a way to be at peace with our trials, it is a way to combat suicide while reclaiming our heritage.

There is a quote being shared on social media that reads, “Every Native born into this world is a victory against colonialism [and] attempted genocide. You are the resistance. You are hope made flesh.”

I have to remember that my life, insignificant though it may seem at times, has value and meaning not just in the present tense, but to the generations of grandparents who came before and sacrificed much to ensure my survival. And so, we too, must do the same to ensure the survival of our people. We are hope made flesh.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to someone.

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