Suicide is a major public health problem for American Indians. The suicide rate for American Indian teenagers in particular is 2.5 times higher than the national average. I took a trip over the summer to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Reservation in Suttons Bay to talk with folks in the community about the issue.
When I visited the reservation, it was rainy, no sun in sight, but that didn't stop a couple thousand people from making the trek to the reservation for the annual powwow. The Anishinaabe word is "Jiingtamok."
Tyra John is decked out in full beaded regalia, which she proudly tells me she designed herself. The 13-year-old is performing two dances at the powwow today – the hoop dance and jingle dance. She lives on the reservation, and she likes it. She likes how everyone shares the same culture. She finds comfort in that. She kind of gets depressed when she leaves "the rez" to go to a public school nearby.
"We're often ridiculed for our culture in school ... well, I am, anyway," says Tyra. "My classmates sometimes are not very welcoming of my beliefs or culture."
When I ask her how that makes her feel, she hesitates for a moment and then blurts out one word: "Terrible."
Miishen Willis is 17 years old and a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Sault Ste. Marie. She now lives in Suttons Bay and was supposed to meet me at the powwow, but her anxiety got the best of her, so we did the interview at her mom’s condo nearby.
Willis says about five years ago, she started to have these really intense feelings of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
"Usually when I have self-harm thoughts I just go to sleep or do something with my hands ... popping bubble wrap really helps," she explains. "And then for suicidal thoughts, I’ve figured out if they get super super bad, I have to get my parents."