Material World: Indigenous Suicides
By Alan Johnstone
02 June, 2015
It is estimated that there are 250 million people living in 5000 to 6000 distinct groups in more than 70 countries. While it may be true that indigenous peoples share a close attachment to their land, commonly lack statehood, are subject to economic and political marginalisation, and are the objects of cultural and ethnic discrimination, they exhibit wide diversity in lifestyles, cultures, social organisation, histories, and political realities. The most important factor in the history of indigenous peoples has been the European economic expansion that began a little more than 500 hundred years ago and continues to the present day. Whenever they have come into contact with more powerful nations, indigenous peoples have been pushed aside and forced to give up their traditional lands. The legacy of violence against indigenous peoples is appalling. All over the world they have been terrorised, abused and exterminated. While the mass killings of indigenous peoples have been reduced in scale over the last 500 years, they have never stopped. Indigenous peoples are among the poorest of the poor. Their living conditions are abysmal, they receive less education, they work more and earn less, and their overall health is poorer than non-indigenous populations. Given the trauma that indigenous peoples have experienced, and to which they continue to be subjected, they suffer from high rates of psychological and behavioral problems.
Throughout the world indigenous peoples suffer from high rates of alcoholism and suicide. Relocation, epidemics, depopulation, and subjugation have put indigenous peoples everywhere at high risk of depression and anxiety. Every culture provides ways by which individuals may satisfy their needs for meaning, prestige, and status. Small-scale, hunter-gatherer societies provide several: excellence in hunting, storytelling, or as a healer. Whatever its size, complexity or environment, a central task of any culture is to provide its members with a sense of belonging and purpose. What happens, then, when a people's way of life is destroyed through disease, genocide, loss of territory, and repression of language and culture? It leads to self-destruction. James Anaya, former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples said suicides among indigenous youth, across the globe, are common in situations where tribe members have seen the upheaval of their culture, which produces in the indigenous a lack of self-confidence and grounding about who they are. ‘They see taking their own lives as unfortunately and sadly an option,’ he said.
In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native men ages 15 to 34, and is two and a half times higher than the national average for that age group. 75 percent of Native American men and one third of Native American women can be classified as alcoholics or alcohol abusers. These numbers are amazing, and do not even accurately reflect the far-reaching effects of alcohol abuse, such as physical problems, mental illness, community violence, unemployment, and domestic abuse. Indians die from alcohol-related causes at a rate four times higher than the rest of United States citizens. In fact, four of the top ten causes of death among Indians are alcohol related.
Australian Aboriginal people commit suicide at a far younger age than non-Aboriginal Australians, with reports of prepubescent children, some as young as eight committing suicide. Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men ages 25 to 29 have a suicide rate four times higher than the general population in that same age group in Australia.
Among the indigenous peoples in Brazil, the suicide rate was six times higher than the national average in 2013. In the Guaraní tribe, Brazil’s largest, the rate is estimated at more than twice as high as the indigenous rate over all, the study said. In fact it may be even higher. The Guaraní have long made their home in the fertile land of Brazil’s southwest, where swaths of vast forests and savannas have been transformed into farms and ranches. In the process, the tribe has been dispossessed and uprooted from its traditional way of life. Many in the tribe face extreme discrimination and live in abject poverty close to the farmers and ranchers who occupy land that was once theirs. ‘Living in this non-place, they commit suicide,’ said Professor Alcantara, an anthropologist at the University of São Paulo who has studied adolescent suicides among the Guaraní. Nearly 100 years ago, the Guaraní, who today live primarily in Brazil and Paraguay, were forced off their ancestral land when the Brazilian government granted farmers and ranchers the legal title to that land. Tribe members were placed in crowded reservations, and often separated from family members. Distress, poverty and violence against tribal leaders have led to despair among Guaraní teenagers, who feel they don’t have a future. Professor Alcantara said that over the past 10 years tribe members have come to live between two cultures — the culture of nearby cities, where they are discriminated against, and the culture of their own tribe. Young tribe members, in particular, feel that they don’t belong either to the city or to the tribe, she said.
Professor Colin Tatz of the Australian National University suggests that when you are engaged in a struggle, a struggle to survive, suicide rates are very low. In apartheid South Africa there were few suicides among blacks. When people are involved in a struggle there is a reason to exist. Of course there are other contributing causes to those high suicide rates, such as the endless cycle of death and grief within Aboriginal communities that Aboriginal kids know what death is a lot earlier than any of us and this affects children profoundly, professor Tatz explained. When they have become normalised to deaths of ‘non-natural’ causes, suicide at moments of distress becomes a normal response. ‘Since the 1960s, suicide has now become ritualised, patterned and institutionalised in Aboriginal communities,’ said Tatz.
Dr Norm Sheehan, from Swinburne University of Technology sees suicide as the direct result of colonialism:
‘Colonialism deprives the colonised of positive self-images and for me, that’s a crucial part of the Aboriginal experience. …cultural disconnection was a major cause of suicide especially amongst Aboriginal youth,’ Sheehan explained. ‘So you look at Aboriginal kids who are separated from their culture, who are called Aboriginal, treated as Aboriginals but have no understanding of what being Aboriginal is — it’s an incredible conflict to carry and there is no real cultural education happening. The knowledge of Aboriginal culture is very significant for Aboriginal communities as they take away the doubt and they bring a positive cultural perspective to people who have been deprived of that cultural perspective. Identity and selfhood are important for emotional well-being. Australia has historically denied these basic human needs to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people were deprived of a true understanding of self because their biological make-up was seen as an impediment something that had to be erased. That’s a crime against humanity. But Aboriginal people have had to live with that legacy and develop a concept of self in a zone like that, so understanding what culture is in that context is almost impossible.’
Psychiatrist Professor Martin Graham from the University of Queensland, believes ‘ There is a deep sadness among Aboriginal peoples and that that translates to a sense of anomie perhaps. A kind of deep sense of sadness and boredom and dispiritedness relating to loss of land, loss of culture, loss of languages in some cases and a sense that none of it can be changed. So despite all of the government money going in, despite all of assistance that has been offered, despite a whole range of programs like the Life Promotion Program, for instance, this sense of deep despair remains and Norm [Sheehan] would track it back and say it’s probably related to a sense of distress at the genocide that was perpetuated by white Australians from 1788. That kind of makes sense to me but it kind of doesn’t make sense to me because if you believe another group is trying to kill you off surely what you do is fight that and try to stay alive and live longer than the bastards?’
But, the ‘refusal to die’ solution is something many governments will become wary of. In ‘Dying to Please You: Indigenous Suicide in Contemporary Canada’ by Roland Chrisjohn and co-authored with Shaunessy McKay and Andrea Smith we read:
‘We have no doubt that the most positive ANTI-SUICIDE program for Indigenous peoples that has been seen in Canada in the last few years is the Idle No More Movement, Indians behaving like Indians, which at the same time was perhaps the scariest thing seen by the government.’ The authors explain, ‘Suicidology has chosen to reformulate the question: ‘Why are Indians killing themselves at such high rates?’ as ‘What’s wrong with Indians that makes them want to kill themselves at such high rates?’… Models of Indian suicide are individualistic, relying on supposed internal characteristics instead of looking at…social, economic, and political forces impinging on Aboriginal Peoples…. We invite suicidologists to stop peering inwardly, start looking at the world around us, and see what’s happening to us all.’
Historians and politicians should stop boasting about progress and civilisation of capitalism until they understand the brutality and falsehood it brought yet while we call for a new understanding, it’s more important to advocate social change to make real change.
An abridged version of the above was published in the June issue of the Socialist Standard
Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement - http://www.worldsocialism.org/ He contributes to the blogs Socialism or Your Money Backhttp://socialismoryourmoneyback.blogspot.com/
Socialist Courier http://socialist-courier.blogspot.com/
Socialist Courier http://socialist-courier.blogspot.com/