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Dancing against trauma on the Wind River Indian Reservation

suicide prevention

Native men sing and drum around a table at the center of the Blue Sky Hall gymnasium in Ethete. Members of the local UNITY group dance in the background.

Dancing against trauma on the Wind River Indian Reservation

By Ron Feemster
— February 4, 2014

In Fremont County, where the suicide rate is usually more than twice the national average, a group of Northern Arapaho activists is battling alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide with traditional music and dance.

At Blue Sky Hall in Ethete, a crowd of nearly 100 people showed up on a Friday night for an impromptu potluck dinner followed by a round dance. After a supper of fried chicken, chili and stew, the singers and drummers played at a table in the middle of the gymnasium as people danced in a circle around them.

“The round dance is a healing community gathering,” said Elk Sage, coordinator of the Meth/Suicide Prevention Initiative in Northern Arapaho Tribal Health. Sage and his colleagues organize four or five round dances a year, which rotate between the community halls in Fort Washakie, Ethete and Arapahoe.

“In the summer we want to have a dance in City Park in Riverton,” Sage said. The community that puts on the dances is drug and alcohol free. The choice of City Park as a venue, a place where homeless drinkers gather year around, takes aim at a symbol of alcohol abuse in the county.

suicide prevention

Elk Sage, head of the Meth/Suicide Prevention Initiative for the Northern Arapaho tribe, shows off his hand painted drum at the round dance in Ethete.

“Alcohol is a big contributor to crime in Fremont County,” Sage said. “It’s a big contributor to crime on the Rez.”

But the group’s greatest concern on the reservation is suicide. Even though suicide rates are low compared to decades past, tribal leaders worry that young people are at risk, especially if they are not in touch with traditional culture.

“We have 6,000 young people on the reservation, said Allison Sage, Elk’s father and the director of health programs for the Northern Arapaho tribe. “It’s up to us to teach them,” he said, holding up the drum he brought to the dance.

The Wind River reservation was known for its high suicide rate in the 1980s, but numbers have dropped since then, on the reservation if not always in the county.

“We haven’t had a youth suicide — 17 or under — in eight or nine years,” said the younger Sage. “It was way before I started keeping track of the coroner’s numbers.”

Of the 159 suicides in Fremont County since 2000, 31 have been Native American, according to Mark Stratmoen, chief deputy coroner for the county. About one in five county residents is Native. The suicide rate is about the same among Natives and non-Natives.

suicides in Fremont County

The number of suicides goes up and down in Fremont County. But most years the county rate exceeds twice the national average. (Fremount County Coroner’s Office Data — click to enlarge)

In the county as a whole, the coroner counted as few as 6 suicides in 2006 and as many as 19 in 2012, the all time high since the county began keeping statistics. In 2013, 10 county residents took their own lives. One was a Native American.

But compared to the national average of 12.4 suicides per 100,000 residents in 2011, the most recent figure available from Centers for Disease Control, the Fremont County rate is high. The county has just over 41,000 residents, so the 14 suicides in 2011 come to 34 suicides per 100,000 residents.

Alcohol and Drugs

Cultural activists on the reservation see alcohol and drugs as steps along the path to self-destruction for many Native people who fall on hard times.

“It’s a cycle of poverty,” the younger Sage said. “It’s hard to break out. People have no transportation. No housing. They have all sorts of trauma: physical, mental and sexual trauma.”

Sage traces many of today’s traumas back to American Indian boarding schools run by the federal government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When children were forbidden to speak their native languages and cut off from their tribes and families, they lost contact with many elements of tribal culture, from traditional parenting skills to music and dance.

“There are multigenerational traumas,” the younger Sage said. “If we don’t acknowledge them and try to heal from them, they develop a life of themselves.”

He hopes that building a stronger community on the reservation will combat the early symptoms of alcoholism and drug addiction, which he sees as steps toward crime and, in the worst case, suicide.

“Now we have kids on the reservation who are angry,” Sage said. “They are angry and they don’t even know they are angry. They don’t see it but it’s there.”

UNITY

United National Indian Tribal Youth is one group of young people on the reservation that vows to live drug and alcohol free lives and help young Indians learn about their culture. About two dozen UNITY members showed up for the round dance at Blue Sky Hall.

“Most younger kids are not really into the culture,” said Robert Sloss, 18, a Shoshone Bannock who grew up in Idaho. He is the male co-chair of the local UNITY group. “Mostly it’s the language that makes it hard. We try to bring the younger kids in and get them learning about the culture.”

With its focus on service and building leadership skills, UNITY’s aim is similar to that of Elk Sage and his colleagues. Sometimes Sage branches out in other directions as well. He regularly runs parties just for young people.

“All of this stuff appeals to different people, Sage said. “Rap, hip-hop, round dance, rock ‘n’ roll. We’ll try anything that is alcohol and drug free, as long as it is positive and builds community.”

The next round dance is set for Feb. 14 at Great Plains Hall in Arapahoe. Planning it for Valentine’s Day was no accident.

“Believe it or not, romantic breakups are one of the biggest triggers,” Elk Sage said. “If you don’t have a girlfriend, or if she broke up with you, that’s a hard time.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @feemsternews.

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