Tribe turns to tradition to combat suicide

It began inside a jail cell, where a young man hanged himself.

What followed was a cascade of death that threatened to engulf the Wind River Indian Reservation.

During August and September of 1985, nine young people killed themselves. Most were Northern Arapahos.

Four of the victims were between the ages of 14 and 19, and five between 23 and 26.

Three additional victims, between the ages of 18 and 23, had ties to the reservation and to some of the other victims.

Eighty-eight verified suicide attempts or threats also were recorded, the majority by young people 13 to 19 years old.

Mental health experts from around the nation tried to intervene.

“But it wasn’t doing any good,” Nelson White Sr., an Arapaho elder, recalled.

National media descended on the scene, an intrusion many people resented as insensitive and bent on sensationalism. One television crew tried to crash a victim’s funeral. Eventually, tribal leaders barred the press from Indian land.

Almost as quickly as it spread, the contagion ended.

Alcohol was a direct factor in four of the deaths. But in the absence of concrete answers, larger causes remained matters of conjecture.

At the height of the episode, an Arapaho elder remembered that certain ceremonies had been performed during an epidemic many years earlier.

Prayers were said, and offerings made to the four directions and to the Creator, to purify and restore harmony in a manner consistent with traditional beliefs.

Elders Nelson White Sr. and Crawford White said that’s when the deaths stopped.

Their account is corroborated by a scientific review of the incident.

In a journal article, Margene Tower of the Indian Health Service referred to a “traditional medicine” ceremony that happened at the height of the epidemic.

“This ceremony was held following the ninth suicide,” she wrote. “It was an important cultural and spiritual event that aided in the resolution of grief and increased cohesiveness in the community. No further deaths occurred after this ceremony was held.”

She noted that while suicide attempts remained abnormally high for two months after the ninth death these soon subsided.

It was the power of community and a people’s prayer that broke the deadly cycle, Nelson White Sr. said: “We belong to the Creator.”

What happened among the Northern Arapahos in 1985 has not been forgotten. Efforts to forestall suicides today incorporate ceremonies conducted in the Arapaho language, talking circles, sweat lodges and involvement of elders, all woven together in a kind of community safety net.

Trained suicide interveners watch for early signs of trouble. Both the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone with whom they share the Wind River reservation have suicide prevention programs.

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