It’s 5:45pm. The small, single engine plane bounces to a landing on the hard packed snow-covered runway in a remote Alaskan village. It is -15 below zero. There are no trees, just a vast frozen ocean, ice, snow drifts, small hills in the distance, and what would look like a suburb of homes if it were not in such an isolated location. The land and horizon is majestic and still. The bounty of sea and land animals have provided for generations. And for a moment I feel the relief of being away from the stresses of city life, of being home on the land.
Among the possibility of a simple, peaceful life on the land, rests one of the most tumultuous challenges our people have ever faced. It has been the focus of my attention for a couple years, although the cultural, spiritual, mental, and social breakdown that fosters it, have filled my thoughts on many occasions. As the plane slows to a stop on the runway and the snow machines pull up, my mind is drawn back to my mission: healing, wellness, prevent suicide.
Although we deal with many kinds of losses, suicide is one of the hardest tragedies to face, because there is rarely a straightforward answer to the question: Why? Even when the person was faced with big problems, there is still the question: What brought them to decide that suicide was an answer? Unlike many tragedies, suicide is not an accident. It is not forced upon someone. And it is clearly preventable.
Suicide is a reflection of social suffering. The pressures and complexity of life Indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis are astounding. We often navigate personal trauma, communal dysfunction, unresolved grief, family losses, and addictive behaviors, while having to also deal with oppressive and assimilative parts of imposed systems (governance / education) and behaviors (racism / indifference) from a dominant culture. After generations of intentional actions to break down a peoples’ spirit and take control away from them over their destiny, it is no surprise that social illness is able to take hold. Even though there is cause for hardship felt by so many Indigenous people, this is not the end of the story.
There are many people who positively face their inner discord, face the traumas of their lifetime, and deal with the current context in which they live. They are choosing the very challenging path of healing. It requires an awareness and acceptance of the truth. It is a daily practice of reminding oneself that life is a blessing, full of challenges, yet ours to live as we choose. This path also requires support from others in the community. It is more than a “me against the world.” It is a “together we will prevail.”
There is great power in reaching out to another person in your community. While in the village, a friend shared that she baked a couple pies for elders because it was what she used to do for her grandfather before he passed. She was feeling sad, missing her grandfather, and thought she would turn her grief into caring for others. She made her teenage daughter come along as she showed up at elders’ homes with the unexpected gift of a pie. Her daughter was surprised at how happy the elders were and how good it made her feel as well. The next week was consumed with making pies and bringing them to all the elders in the village! When we act in kindness, ask someone how they are doing, or share a compliment with them, we can help shift the course of a persons day or maybe even their life.
When the personal choice to live a healthy, positive lifestyle is combined with pro-active outreach to others, we begin the process of bringing wellness back into our communities. Our strength comes from the closeness in our healthy relationships with others. Many of our people simply need someone to listen to their stories and not judge them for what they have been through. Our compassion and empathy can go a long ways. I am grateful for all those who are working to be there for others in their family and community in this way.
I spend a day in the school with about fifty 7th-12th graders in the gym. We play games, draw pictures from our life, and learn of the history of our people. We also talk about the rapid cultural change we are experiencing, tell stories, and discuss the many challenges we face in our families and villages. They are happy to share their knowledge, concern, and then also laugh with one another.
We all need someone to talk to, not just those we think need help. So, please find a trustworthy person if you need support. There is no shame in asking for help. There is no shame in mourning the losses and hardships in our lives. There is no shame in feeling the support of others. Lets all be a part of the solution by reaching out and coming together.