Indigenous People’s Day

Yesterday, we recognized Indigenous People’s Day. And for good reason. The contributions made by indigenous persons are incalculable and irreplaceable. One of the many tragedies of the trend toward globalization is the loss of these unique and culturally significant individuals and ways of living. We can all do better to ensure that the rich tapestry created by our indigenous communities is not lost forever. And one way we can do that is by supporting their mental health.

Of the 330 million people in the United States, roughly 1.3 percent identify as indigenous. That is over 4.25 million individuals. And those individuals make up 573 recognized federal tribes, with over 200 indigenous languages and cultures. And out of those over 4 million people, 19 percent identify as living with mental illness, which is over 800,000 people.

And for those indigenous people who are living with mental illness, we are failing them. We are failing them because we are not ensuring enough access to mental health resources. We are not working with the tribes to understand and educate their members about potential mental health challenges. We are not ensuring that there are qualified mental health professionals who specialize in working with these unique indigenous cultures. We can do better.

In some cases, some tribes are looking to the past to address some of these challenges. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, Coast Salish and First Nation Tribes participate in an annual canoe journey to the host tribe, which rotates each year. In doing so, they keep the cultural significance of the canoe alive, and continue to share their language and culture. In a 1989 letter, Emmett Oliver, a Quinault educator who first organized the Paddle to Seattle, talked about the importance of being free of drugs and alcohol, for those ways weren’t the ways of their people. This is a reference to the fact that native populations tend to have high rates of addiction issues, which I believe is, among other things, a reflection of the way we have failed our indigenous people.

Almost 10 years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to join just a brief portion of this journey. It was one of the most spiritually rewarding experiences of my life. The beauty of the culture, the bonds of friendship and kinship between those on the journey, the sharing of song, dance, and culture is something I will carry with me for the rest of my days. Even now, as I write these words, I am struck by how inadequate the description of this experience is.

Part of what is lacking from my description is that so much of the music, culture, and stories I observed back then are not mine to repeat. Indigenous people are proud individuals, and understandably so. They are survivors. Even after all the years of western influence and globalization, they are still alive. They know how to take care of themselves, all that is required of us white people is to respect that, respect them and their culture, and try to be an ally when appropriate. And part of being an ally means working with these tribes to remedy the past failings described earlier.

As support for Indigenous People’s Day continues to grow, my hope is that an understanding and respect for these remarkable cultures continues to grow as well. And I hope that future Indigenous People’s Days can reflect better co-existence with our indigenous neighbors, as well as lower rates of mental health struggles. Because that will truly be something to celebrate.

Sources: Native and Indigenous Communities and Mental Health – MHA; Canoe Journey generation youth are fulfilling the dream of its Seattle founder.

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