Fort Belknap suicide prevention program looks to help by restoring Native culture

Holistic health approach supported by research from Johns Hopkins University

By: - September 11, 2022 8:49 am

Scholars study public health issues at Aaniiih-Nakoda College for the summer program (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

HARLEM — The metaphor is both simple and stunning: A group of people, all at life’s edge, teetering on the brink of survival.

One of the people jumps and several more follow.

That’s what happened at Fort Belknap in 2019, when a cluster of suicides triggered a response from Fort Belknap’s tribal leaders, distressed and dismayed at the events.

Montana’s suicide rate is already among the nation’s highest, but in Indian Country, it’s even more pronounced as a variety of issues from substance abuse to poverty to generational trauma force some Native Americans to make desperate decisions.

However, researcher and public health leader Teresa Brockie and her team of researchers and youth scholars are leading a comprehensive and holistic approach to mental health concerns, which often include anxiety, depression and suicide.

The answer and antidote, in part, is to inculcate or vaccinate against those external pressures, which include substance abuse and economic poverty, by training youth and other community leaders to care for each other by training in healthcare fields. The idea is that doing so will lead to self-sustainability. But another key aspect of the programming is restoring their culture, which has been systematically eradicated since the Aaniiih-Nakoda were placed on the reservation.

A comprehensive program in Fort Belknap has begun, funded by Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, along with others. The goal is to research the epidemic of suicide on Indian reservations and work to make a positive impact. Instead of importing experts to come to northern Montana, members are building programs and training tribal members to help combat the problem. In fact, the first plea to help came from the tribal council desperate to help curb the problem and implement better suicide prevention.

Along the way, though, Brockie and her team have stressed: Suicide doesn’t happen as a stand-alone issue, there are many complex and monumental hurdles that must be tackled to get at it. That kind of problem may seem daunting, maybe even impossible for some, but the team has found eager advocates in the youth of the tribe.

Public health program

Tribal leaders recognized that help wouldn’t just come from some other place, and the tribal community may not necessarily accept it from an out-of-area organization. So they started developing a seven-week summer program that has given tribal and community members exposure to different public health fields, from counseling, to nursing to dietetics.

For example, the Native-led seminars address such things like addictions, with a chemistry component as well as neuroscience.

Part of the program also focuses on nursing training and mental health.

“There are just little to no mental health resources in rural and Native settings,” Brockie said.

It’s not just that there are resource issues, the leaders and youth scholars of the program said, it’s that they cycle quickly in and out and don’t have connections to the generational challenges that have vexed Indian Country.

Nona Main grew up in the Fort Belknap Indian Community and moved away. She felt that pull of the reservation, but also worried about coming home.

“I purposely stayed away because of how heavy it was,” Main said. “I was really hesitant but I wanted to be part of something that would be a solution.”

She understands that the work – to use her word – is heavy. Confronting the poverty, drug abuse and lack of economic mobility are issues that span generations. However, she’s also seen people come and go, and realizes that whatever the answer is to solving these large-as-life problems, it will likely be by Natives helping each other.

Tackling suicide was a good example of a topic that isn’t the same as in other parts of Montana. Group members explained that the cultural differences also affected how the tribe confronts the problem. For example, there’s a spiritual aspect that says if you talk about something, it will happen, making the topic of suicide a Catch-22.

However, Main explained that another health issue, cancer, has also pointed the way for public health officials on the reservation to tackle suicide. Talking more openly about cancer has meant it may be safe to discuss suicide and mental health openly.

“I’ve seen that change, and they talk about it in a different way,” Main said. “They talk about it in a way and that they’re doing part of the Creator’s work. It’s talking about it in a natural way that we’re used to it. We can sit and talk about cancer and share and they know they can be safe here.”

Meanwhile, some youth in the project see themselves as becoming advocates for their people who have been ignored by leaders outside the reservation.

Deep cultural trauma

One of the aspects of this program is confronting the trauma that has happened for generations within the Native American communities on reservations. For example, as part of the project, the youth scholars learn about the history of the Fort Belknap community, including creating timelines of dates. Those dates correspond to land being shrunk and the reservation being established. But the timelines, hung around a classroom at the Aaniiih-Nakoda College, don’t stop at 2022.

Many go years, if not decades, into the future, and list achievements and dreams – for example, when the tribe and the reservation becomes self-sustaining. Some of the dates represent more subtle yet poignant milestones – when the trees fully return to the reservation.

The scholars learn and discuss how Native American cultures were taught to devalue themselves, forced to adopt Anglicized names, and how youth were ripped from families, sent off to boarding schools and made to forget ancestral languages in a policy summed up in an equally brutal phrase: Kill the Indian, save the man.

The cultural genocide that was attempted nearly worked, wiping out traditions, languages and splitting families. Those reasons remain some of the main drivers for the persistently high rates of suicide, Brockie said. However, the group of scholars, researchers and public health officials also said that restoring the culture is something that needs to be done by tribal members themselves.

“Without understanding the history, we do not teach a truthful, respectful representation of who we are and what we stand for,” said Bobby Pourier, the program director.

Students likened the challenge of curbing suicide to the challenges of fire and smoke. Previously, they said tackling suicide on the reservation was a lot like being concerned with the smoke.

“But here, we’re not trying to wave away the smoke. The cause is trauma and disempowerment,” said MaLea Moore. “Two hundred or three hundred years of trauma, and it’s natural to experience alcoholism and suicide. These are natural consequences. What we’re trying to get at is putting out the fire and not just fanning the smoke.”

New solutions using ancient traditions

This program has helped lead to a reimagining of culture. While religious ceremonies and even the Native languages themselves were pushed to the fringes of the reservation and something that fell out of favor, a renaissance of sorts is beginning with younger members of the tribe, hungry to learn the older ways.

And recapturing and reclaiming the language, religion and history has been put to work as a sort of vaccination to help protect against the despair.

Michael Turns Plenty, Jaden Black Crow, Mackenzie Pretty Paint and Jermaine Brockie all talk of seeking out the traditional ways that are helping to bond the youth with an older generation, who have also committed to helping pass along the cultural values. That means talking about speaking the Native language, practicing patience when the younger folks don’t quite get it at first.

For someone like Main, it means coming back to those same traditions, which she left earlier in her life.

“We were raised to come to the ceremonies, but it’s not something we always did,” Main said. “But it’s helped solidify who we were and we are as Aaniiih-Nakoda people.”

For Pourier, the cultural rebuilding has not just brought together the generations, it’s done something equally powerful: “It’s broken the cycle of shame. They no longer have to feel ashamed about who they are.”

“When I hear people say, ‘Get over it,’” Pourier said. “I always want to know what the ‘it’ is. One way that trauma works is that people are taught not to ask for help.”

Brockie also sees this as a powerful healing tool for not just Native Americans, but for different cultures to learn the valuable lessons history has to teach.

“This is the answer to White Supremacy. (Native Americans) have our own work to do, but (European culture) has its work to do, too,” Brockie said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.