#15. Indigenous Trauma and Suicide an Enduring Legacy of Colonialism

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

From evidence of neglect at government-run clinics in Canada’s northern reserves to the tragic loss of lives in remote villages in Alaska and on reservation lands in Montana, independent news coverage helps to frame the otherwise underreported issue of Indigenous mistreatment and suicide in historical terms, against the backdrops of settler colonialism and systemic racism that affect Indigenous people and their communities in Canada and the United States.

Indigenous suicide is a serious public health issue throughout the United States, Devon Heinen reported for the New Statesman in January 2020. In 2017 the combined suicide rate for US Indigenous peoples was 22.15 per 100,000 people, compared with an overall national average of 16.3 per 100,000 people, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Heinen reported. In Alaska—where 229 of the 573 federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages in the United States are located—the Indigenous suicide rate from 1999 to 2009 was 42.5 per 100,000 people. 

In Montana, Native youths aged 11 to 24 are five times more likely to die by suicide than non-Natives, according to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, Mountain West News reported in July 2019. The suicide rate for Native youths in Montana is 42.82 per 100,000 people, compared with eight suicides per 100,000 people for all people in the same age range. Mountain West News reported that, over a period of three months, the Fort Belknap Reservation had experienced a “suicide contagion,” with three suicides and an estimated fifteen additional suicide attempts prompting the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council to declare a state of emergency.

As other reports documented, suicide has devastated First Nations communities in Canada. In June 2019, Claudette Commanda and Louise Bradley reported that suicide and self-inflicted injuries are “the leading cause of death” for First Nations youth and adults up to age 44. In November 2019, the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declared a state of emergency after a rash of suicides, and the deaths of four Indigenous men by suicide on Ochapowace First Nation led Ochapowace to declare a state of emergency in December 2019. While affirming “the resiliency and strength of Indigenous peoples,” Commanda and Bradley wrote that “high rates of suicide, homicide, incarceration and substance abuse born of colonial trauma illustrate the pain and suffering that Indigenous communities continue to experience.” The impacts have been especially stark for First Nations male youth, for whom the suicide rate is 126 per 100,000, they noted.

“The challenge that we face collectively,” Commanda and Bradley wrote, “is to draw a narrative thread through numbers that point to pain and hurt and give it a human voice.”

Devon Heinen’s January 2020 report for the New Statesman shows how independent investigative journalism can contribute to this aim. Heinen reported in detail on the experience of one Iñupiaq family in the aftermath of the death by suicide of Rosie Hadley, at age twenty. Drawing on extensive interviews with Hadley’s family and those who knew her—Heinen conducted 27 separate interviews over four months with Rosie’s father, Nathan Hadley—Heinen’s report provided a vivid, detailed account of Rosie’s life and the community of Buckland, population 400, in Alaska’s remote and sparsely populated Northwest Arctic Borough. [Note: As one of Heinen’s sources—Bree Swanson, a social services administrator—explained, the Northwest Arctic tribal health region was the worst region for Indigenous suicide in Alaska from 2012 to 2015. Swanson identified generational trauma as one risk factor. Noting that colonization in the mainland United States was “hundreds of years old,” Swanson said it is “more recent” in Alaska. “We’re talking grandparent generation,” Swanson told New Statesman.] Through its intimate investigation of one family’s experience in the context of their community, the local lack of necessary social services, and the living legacy of the region’s colonial history, Heinen’s report provides a stark insight into one aspect of Indigenous suicide as a public health issue—how, in his words, “to help people heal after losing someone close.”

[Note: For another instance of the power with which in-depth investigative journalism can convey the challenges faced by determined Indigenous families and communities confronting violence, see Eilís Quinn, “Death in the Arctic,” Eye on the Arctic, December 14, 2018, https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic-special-reports/death-nunavik-quebec-arctic-canada/#home. Quinn reported the story of the violent death Robert Adams, a nineteen-year-old Inuk from Northern Quebec, and his father’s struggle for access to mental health services, coroner’s services, and the Inuit justice system. In January 2020, “Death in the Arctic” won the silver medal at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. “Eye on the Arctic report Death in the Arctic Wins Prize at Canadian Online Publishing Awards,” Eye on the Arctic, January 13, 2020, https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2020/01/13/eye-on-the-arctic-report-death-in-the-arctic-wins-prize-at-canadian-online-publishing-awards-copa-justice-journalism-nunavik/.]

An October 2019 report by Reuters documented how government-run or -sponsored health clinics in Canada are failing to provide Indigenous communities with necessary services. For more than nine years, the Canadian federal government has not consistently tracked, let alone investigated, poor outcomes at clinics on Indigenous reserves, Allison Martell reported. These clinics, known as nursing stations, are charged with providing basic and emergency care to about 115,000 people. Through analysis of documents, including internal reports and meeting notes obtained through public records requests, Martell reported that record-keeping on deaths and other “critical incidents” at the clinics has been “erratic and fragmented.” Reuters documented at least two cases—one in Ontario, and another in Manitoba—in which nursing station officials turned away apparently intoxicated patients who subsequently died. Lack of adequate official records made it “difficult” to determine whether this “has been a widespread practice,” Martell reported, but a coroner’s verdict on one of the deaths described it as the “northern protocol.”

“We are treating members of the First Nations communities as second-class citizens,” Emily Hill, a senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, told Reuters. Martell wrote that Reuters’s findings on deadly negligence in Canada’s nursing stations came as Canada is “in the midst of a public reckoning with the legacy of settler colonization.”

Recent corporate news coverage on Indigenous suicide and other trauma associated with the destructive legacies of colonization has not been proportionate to the scope of the crisis—with only a few notable exceptions. In August 2019, for example, U.S. News & World Report published a brief Associated Press report on the Fort Belknap community’s response to suicides. This seven-sentence article drew heavily from previous, more substantial local reporting by the Billings Gazette. In June 2019 USA Today reported, in more detail, on Native Americans’ “increased risk of suicide,” in light of the experience of Shelby Rowe, the executive director of the Arkansas Crisis Center, after she experienced a suicide crisis herself. In April 2018 the New York Times published a powerful, detailed story about the Arlee Warriors, a state championship high school basketball team from Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, and its team members’ efforts to help their community deal with suicide.

Devon Heinen, “Nobody to Call: The Plight of Indigenous Suicide in Alaska,” New Statesman, January 10, 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/2019/12/nobody-call-indigenous-suicides-alaska.

“Tribe Faces Suicide Crisis,” Mountain West News, July 23, 2019, https://mountainwestnews.org/rockies-today-for-tuesday-july-23-99e8bc80babc.

Claudette Commanda and Louise Bradley, “We Must Not Forget Men When We Talk about Indigenous Trauma,” The Globe and Mail, June 16, 2019, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-we-must-not-forget-men-when-we-talk-about-indigenous-trauma/.

Allison Martell, “Deaths, Bad Outcomes Elude Scrutiny at Canada’s Indigenous Clinics,” Reuters, October 24, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-health-insight/deaths-bad-outcomes-elude-scrutiny-at-canadas-indigenous-clinics-idUSKBN1X3152.

Student Researchers: Danna Henderson (First Nations University of Canada), Olivia Page (College of Marin), and Alicia Morrow (University of Regina)

Faculty Evaluators: Patricia W. Elliott (First Nations University of Canada), Susan Rahman (College of Marin), and Kehinde Olalafe (University of Regina)