Accidents and suicide are the leading causes of death among young Native Americans. And brazen humor may get to the heart of the problem.
The fight against the high rates of suicide among Indian people has found a seemingly unlikely champion in Lakota comedian J.R. Redwater. JR performed recently at Cankdeska Cikana Community College on the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota as part of their suicide prevention program. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, JR’s take-no-prisoners approach to poking fun at reservation life has a poignant ring of first hand experience. Clearly, as my auntie would have said, “he’s been dragged across a few floors,” in his life.
Born and raised on the rez, he tells the audience, “Hey, I’ve been through it all. Drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse. I’ve been abandoned and physically abused.” The topics might seem too dark and inappropriate for tonight’s audience of youngsters and adults, but JR knows that these rez kids, like himself, have been through it all. His message is simple yet profound. The act of publicly telling his truth and laughing in its face sends the message that Indian people can be proud and successful no matter what has happened to them.
The Center for Disease Control reports that American Indians have the highest rate of suicide among any racial group in the U. S. Tribal and mainstream health experts describe the suicide rate among American Indians as a health emergency. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for Indians ages 10-34. (The leading cause of death is accidents).
In an interview with the Grand Folks Herald, Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe, cited alcohol as the primary factor behind the suicide rate. In the same article, Eric Broderick of SAMHSA notes that most Indians who die by suicide have never received treatment from mental health care providers. High rates of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, low self esteem and poor parenting conspire to create despair: suicide may seem the only answer. Shame and fear keep many people from reaching out, especially to non-Indian organizations.
In response, many tribes have created their own suicide prevention programs that emphasize culturally sound approaches to mental health issues. With funds from SAMHSA, Cankdeska Cikana Community College has created a suicide prevention program that emphasizes Dakota culture in its Wiconi Ohitika Project. Translated as “Strong Life,” the project provides counseling, education and community presentations for the Spirit Lake Nation.
Contrary to our Hollywood generated reputation for stoicism, Indians love to laugh. We love to laugh really loud, hard and deep. My childhood memories are rich with the sound of wave after wave of laughter issuing from my adult relatives seated around the kitchen table. At its best, that laughter could cleanse the soul like a mighty tsunami reminding us of our fierce desire to survive.
Watching JR reminded me of our traditional Ojibwe teachings from the lodge, teaching that include humor along with love, knowledge, humility, wisdom, respect and truth. I think the creator knew we would really need the gift of humor if Ojibwe and indigenous people in general were to survive.
Nearly every Indian person I know has been touched by suicide. I still recall vividly my first experience with suicide in our family.
My childhood included being jerked out my bed in the middle of the night numerous times to rescue relatives. I recall one such night when I came to my senses in the back seat, still in my Jiminy Cricket jammies, I asked hopefully if we were going to visit Riverside Amusement park on this trip to Chicago. The “shaddup,” response not only answered my question but ended all future inquiries.
Eventually we arrived at the bus depot in downtown Chicago. Cold, dirty and indifferent, it presented such a stark departure from my homey little Wisconsin town.
My brother appeared like a ghost from the rows of plastic seats, his arms covered in bandages from his armpits to his wrists. He was strangely lifeless when I cheered and threw my little sister arms around him. “Leave your brother alone now!” my mom instructed harshly. I will never forget that ride home. The silence was like a dark presence, a bad medicine that had been worked upon us. There was no discussion of his suicide attempt. To this day, I know very little detail. Eventually he reentered life after a fashion. Drinking and drugging the pain away, the rest of his life became one long drawn out suicide until his body finally gave out from the years of abuse.
We never talked about it, and so we gave the pain more strength and power. As an adult, I am almost driven to peel back the layers of denial, pain and anger in our family, because I am determined not to brew or swallow this bad medicine any longer.
Clean and sober for several years, JR told us that his life is a daily struggle to remain true to himself by caring for himself. “I’ve been through it all but I’ve survived,” he told the audience. His survival is based on a strong spiritual connection to God that helped him gain pride in being a healthy Indian man. “We are very spiritual people and that is our strength,” he said. Included in his routine was a message of self care. “Pride is about caring for yourself and being accountable for your own actions.”
With his drunken Indian routine, JR skewers himself and every drunken Indian we have ever seen. He plants his feet far apart as he tries to keep his body from weaving; squinting his eyes he does that defiant stance that we all know so well. Everyone in the audience knows that stance. We see our dads, our moms, our brothers, our lovers even ourselves in JR. We know the embarrassment, the shame, the lack of explanations, the sense of powerlessness, but for that moment we know it together and that takes some of the sting away. We aren’t alone and we are stronger for it. We laugh, oh God how we laugh!. And in doing so, we dissolve some of that bad medicine.