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How a Native American tribe is healing from suicide through tradition

The Chippewa Cree tribe of Montana has been facing a surge of suicide cases in recent years, affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. But instead of losing hope, the tribe has turned to its ancestral culture and spirituality to cope with the crisis and prevent further deaths.

The state of emergency

In August 2023, the Chippewa Cree Tribal Court declared a state of emergency after an “alarming increase” in suicide rates on Rocky Boy’s Reservation, the tribe’s homeland in north central Montana. The tribe did not disclose the exact number of suicides, but said it was a matter of “utmost importance” to address the issue.

The tribe said suicide was a complex problem, influenced by various factors such as mental health, social isolation, and economic challenges. The tribe also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics that show that Native Americans have the highest suicide rate in the U.S., at 28.1 per 100,000 people.

The tribe called for immediate and long-term support from local, tribal, state, and federal partners, as well as increased awareness and reduced stigma around mental health. The tribe also requested a mental health crisis response team to be dispatched to the reservation, and urged the community to stand together and help those at risk.

How a Native American tribe is healing from suicide through tradition

The traditional approach

While seeking external assistance, the tribe also relied on its own internal resources: its culture and spirituality. The tribe has been using traditional practices such as ceremonies, prayers, songs, dances, and storytelling to heal from the grief of suicide and loss, and to foster a sense of belonging and identity among its members.

One of the most powerful tools the tribe has used is the sweat lodge, a dome-shaped structure where people gather to pray, sing, and sweat in a sacred space. The sweat lodge is seen as a place of purification, cleansing, and renewal, where people can release their pain and receive guidance from the Creator and the ancestors.

The tribe has also been organizing cultural camps, where elders teach the youth about their history, language, values, and traditions. The camps are meant to instill pride and confidence in the young generation, and to pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the elders. The camps also provide opportunities for outdoor activities, such as hiking, fishing, and hunting, that connect the youth with nature and their environment.

The positive impact

The tribe’s efforts to use tradition as a way of healing and prevention have been showing positive results. According to the tribe’s health director, the suicide rate has decreased by 50% since the state of emergency was declared, and the number of people seeking mental health services has increased by 75%.

The tribe’s members have also reported feeling more hopeful, resilient, and supported by their community. They have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reconnect with their culture and spirituality, and to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

The tribe’s experience shows that tradition can be a powerful ally in the fight against suicide, and that culture can be a source of strength and healing for Native Americans and other communities facing similar challenges.


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