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'Historic' Gathering Confronting Native American Suicide In Montana

Some of the people at the two day suicide prevention gathering in Helena this week
Eric Whitney
Some of the people at the two day suicide prevention gathering in Helena this week


One day after the suicide of a mountaineer in Montana made headlines across the country, Governor Steve Bullock addressed a gathering in Helena, and brought up another suicide that didn't make the news.

"Last Thursday, the Ft. Belknap community buried one of their own," Bullock said. "She had been a scholar at Harlem High, she'd been an athlete and a role model. She was a soldier, National Guard member representing her state and her nation."

Bullock was opening a two-day suicide prevention training for people who work for and with Montana's tribes and Native American communities.

"I'm tired of calling principals, not just in your communities, but around the state, and recognizing that my only role, I guess, is as the governor, is also to be consoler-in-chief and say, 'on behalf of all Montanans, I'm sorry,'" Bullock said.

In 2015, Governor Bullock included $250,000 in the state budget for suicide prevention efforts in Native communities. This year’s budget allocates $1 million for that. It’s that funding that brought about 75 tribal health leaders, and the people who work with them, to Helena this week to talk and learn about how they can be better connected and address both common problems, and the unique needs of their own communities.

Anna Whiting Sorrell with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ health department says the meeting is historic, because it’s bringing together not just people from all of the state’s reservations, but the state health department and federal Indian Health Service.

"When you bring in urban programs, and have all of the five urban programs in a room, too, that makes it really historic," Whiting Sorrell said. "And that you have state employees and IHS employees – I've been doing healthcare since the early '80s, and I don't remember a time that that has happened."

Federal data released last week shows that Native Americans and Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in America, at about 18 deaths per 100,000 people. The rate is substantially higher for people who live outside cities.

What it means when a group of people who work in health care and education in Indian Country get together is that pretty much everyone in the room has been personally affected by the suicide of someone close to them.

"There’s so much suffering, there are people that are literally dying, right in front of us," Brandi King from Ft. Belknap told the gathering.

When a microphone was passed around, a lot of people talked about struggling with the aftermath of suicide, but also finding the sources of strength to carry on.

Mary Ellen LaFramboise is the director of child and family services for the Blackfeet tribe.

"I’m so tired of hearing, ‘this is one more thing wrong with Indian people,'" she told the group.

LaFramboise encouraged the people at the gathering to take care of themselves, and take care of each other, to lift one another up and encourage one another

"That’s what our older people told us to do, be good to yourself, be good to one another. It’s the only way you can be," she said.

Anna Whiting Sorrell with the CSKT health department echoed what La Framboise and others said about the need for different Native communities to work together, and she said it’s going to take some hard work and disruption to have a positive impact.

"We have to challenge our programs to say, are you willing to share your resources? Are you willing to break down your silos? Are you willing to sit at my meeting, and maybe give some of your resources to my project?" she asked. "We have created bureaucracies in this country that says, we have to kind of protect what's mine, and I'm not going to share mine, because my way is the better way, and we're learning, trying to sort through how to do this in a different way. And I think that's what's exciting about that room, is there's a lot of different professions coming together."

The counselors and doctors and nurses and police and students and veterans and administrators and tribal council members meeting in Helena to try to do something about suicide among Native American people in Montana know that there are no easy solutions. But they’re willing to contribute their knowledge and skills and compassion. Right now they’re trying to use the support they’re getting from the state and federal governments to come up with a framework that will channel their efforts into something that makes a difference.



Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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