Community and Mental Health Providers Tackle Rising Suicide Among Abenaki

From the St. Albans Messenger – December 7, 2019 – Full article

By Michael Frett, Messenger Staff Writer

SWANTON – For several months now, a coalition of community leaders and health care providers have come together in Northwest Vermont as a disturbing trend became more apparent: Vermont’s growing suicide rates might be disproportionately affecting the Abenaki.

Suicide rates in Vermont have swelled above the national average for at least a decade now, reaching a high of 18 people per 100,000 residents in the Green Mountain State in 2018. The state currently has one of the fastest growing suicide rates in the U.S., second only to North Dakota.

A previous Messenger report examining gun-related fatalities in Northwest Vermont centered heavily on recorded suicides, the predominant source of gun violence in both Northwest Vermont and statewide.

Death certificates examined by the Messenger and Vermont Public Radio’s Gunshots project found the majority of victims to be white, middle-aged men, many of whom had a record of military service.

However, according to Brenda Gagne, an Abenaki tribal member and coordinator the Circle of Courage Afterschool Program; Jeff Benay, the Director of Indian Education for Franklin County Public Schools; and Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS)’s Director of Behavioral Health Services Steve Broer, many of those who passed were Abenaki.

“We would go through the death certificates,” Gagne said, “and we know who our people are.”

“We started meeting ten years ago and tracking the data on Abenaki suicides, and it was what we feared,” Benay said. “I think it was a lot higher than what we feared.”

Out of respect for the Abenaki community, members of the grant-funded coalition calling itself Community Partners for Suicide Prevention (CPSP) declined to share how many members of the community had died by suicide.

While state death certificates do allow for Native American identification, very few are explicitly identified among the death certificates previously analyzed by the Messenger alongside VPR’s Gunshots project.

In an email with the Messenger, a representative from the Vermont Dept. of Health said demographic information for death certificates is collected from the family, funeral directors or others responsible for the disposition of the deceased’s remains. While there is an option to list an individual as “American Indian or Alaskan Native” with a tribal affiliation, there are no assurances the reporters either include or would be aware of those affiliations.

Anecdotally, though, Benay and Gagne said the impact has been deep enough that members of the Abenaki community have joined with area health care providers and the statewide Vermont Suicide Prevention Center (VTSPC) to address regional trends in suicide that appeared to be disproportionately affecting the Abenaki.

Organized through a University of Vermont (UVM) Medical Center grant by the Title VI Indian Education Program of Franklin County’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), NCSS, area community health centers and VTSPC, CPSP expects to have a selection of answers developed from the bottom-up with the explicit support of the Abenaki community – new for a Native American community historically relegated to part-time subjects by health researchers.

“In the Abenaki community, there’s long been a sense that people come in and research the community, but they come at it as researchers and look at the community as objects,” Benay said. “We’re trying to remove the objectification… by doing it together.”

“It’s coming from us,” Gagne said. “We’re doing something for us and not to us.”

According to an abstract from CPSP’s application to the UVM Medical Center, while results gleaned from CPSP’s long term study will focus on “culturally sensitive care for Abenaki populations,” infrastructure and programming recommended through CPSP could be expanded for the general population.

The group will spend the next few months interviewing members of both the Abenaki community and the health care community in order to identify barriers to mental health services that might keep members of the Abenaki community from seeking mental health services.

Though CPSP’s grant application does not cite specific barriers to service, it notes that its particular region of focus – Grand Isle County – struggles with many of the risk factors typically blamed for the steady climb in suicide rates in both Vermont and the U.S. at large.

The predominately rural area remains largely isolated from service providers, and a lower population density means public health agencies struggles to reach people with information, the application says.

The Champlain Islands targeted by CPSP’s study especially struggle with their distance from service providers, many anchored in nearby Franklin County, and transportation costs can prevent those in need from seeking help.

According to Broer, regional data on deaths by suicide is tracking with national estimates that found 70 percent of those who died by suicide were not actively seeking help in the mental health care system, though many had apparently met with a primary health care provider at least a month before their passing.

Suicide rates in Vermont have ebbed and flowed over the past decade, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over at least the last five years Vermont’s suicide rate has tracked above federal suicide rates, as both continue an upward climb overall.

In Vermont, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death, and with 112 Vermonters dying by suicide in 2018, suicide continues to claim more lives in Vermont every year than traffic accidents.

According to Broer, while professionals have attributed suicide trends to everything from rural isolation and the ongoing opioid epidemic to the prevalence of social media, there is no singular, clear cause for what health care providers and commentators have called a national suicide epidemic

“There are so many different pathways to suicide,” Broer said. “We’re concerned about youth. We’re concerned about older Vermonters. We’re concerned about individuals from the Abenaki community. We’re concerned about veterans.”

More generally, Broer said stigmas continue to influence discussions around suicide as well, adding, “there’s a lot of shame attached to it, too,” and many still see mental health treatments in terms of hospitalization, something that may keep some from seeking help.

“There is also the fear of being psychiatrically hospitalized when the reality is most individuals who experience suicidal thoughts, feelings and behaviors can be effectively treated in our community,” Broer said in a follow-up email to the Messenger.

NCSS, Broer said, is currently using a more personalized, evidence-based treatment called Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicide (CAMS) in response, allowing the mental health care provider to approach patients with more flexibility when it comes to addressing suicide.

The U.S. Dept. of Health cites CAMS as a “program with evidence of effectiveness,” meaning the program has shown at least some positive impacts on treating suicide by health department metrics.

Reports of the Abenaki being disproportionately affected by trends in suicide, would track with national trends. According to the CDC, suicide impacts Native American communities more than any other demographic group in the U.S.

The Abenaki, like many First Nation peoples, saw their longtime home gradually whittled away as European – and later American – settlers spread into what is now known as New England.

According to historians William Haviland’s and Marjory Power’s The Original Vermonters, the Abenaki had lived in Vermont for centuries before the eventual arrival of Europeans. Even after initial contact with Europeans through the fur trade and French missions, the Abenaki remained the dominant culture in Vermont for some time.

By the end of the 18th century, however, decades of conflict with European settlers and increasingly large territorial claims by European and American businessmen carved the Abenaki’s longtime home into white landholdings.

As white settlements started supplanting the Abenaki across Vermont, many of the Abenaki opted to remain in their ancestral homeland. According to Haviland and Power, many took to European culture as a means to survive, eventually becoming “all but invisible” to the white neighbors who displaced them.

According to Benay and Gagne, the traumatic loss of that homeland and the ensuing marginalization of the Abenaki that followed Vermont’s statehood might have left emotional scars on the community informing at least some of its current struggles with mental health.

Researchers studying the psychological effects of historical events like genocide and mass starvation have found evidence suggesting behaviors and emotions tied to traumatic events, like anxiety or insistence on food hoarding, can also be observed several generations after the event.

The Abenaki were infamously signaled out for forced sterilizations under Vermont’s eugenics program in the first half of the 1900s, and, according to Gagne, discrimination in schools and targeting by state organizations deepened that trauma and inspired further distrust of the state and institutions among members of the Abenaki community.

“We’ve been told not to air our dirty laundry,” Gagne said. “That’s been born into us.”

That distrust, according to members of the CPSP, has trickled into the medical world as well, potentially leaving community members skeptical of mental health care providers like NCSS where, according to Gagne, identification as Abenaki might inspire certain prejudices and stigmas by default.

“We’ve already been labeled,” Gagne said. “So, if you seek out mental health care and you’re Abenaki, that’s a mark against you.”

According to NCSS’s Broer, curtailing those stigmas was one of the places where organizations like NCSS could start when it came to addressing suicides among the Abenaki. While the organization has implemented cultural competency training related to the Abenaki in the past, Broer admitted there was still a need for more systematic training for staff.

Those trainings, in turn, could be shared with other health care providers, he suggested.

Another novel pilot suggested by the group would connect veterans within the Abenaki community to one another, helping bridge some of the feelings of isolation that can come from rural life and life after military service.

According to Benay and Gagne, strides had also been made in the schools, where Gagne said she remembered growing up facing discrimination and where, through work steered by groups like the PAC and through programming like the Circles of Courage, current Abenaki students had found room to express themselves and learn about their culture that, until recently, was stigmatized in places like Swanton.

Already this year, flags were raised over the schools of the Missisquoi Valley School District and an Abenaki totem was installed at the Swanton Schools, reminding people that, according to Gagne, “we’re here and we’re going to continue to be here.”

The CPSP’s work is ongoing and members of the group warned there would likely be no single answer to the disproportionately high suicide rates facing the Abenaki.

As interviews within the Abenaki community occur, though, and as members of the community come together to discuss ways to curtail those trends, those involved appear optimistic. “It’s coming from the community,” Benay said. “It’s messy and it’s time consuming… but this is what we have to do.”

VTSPC, one of the CPSP’s leading partners, is a subset of the Center for Health and Learning, a Brattleboro-based nonprofit dedicated to suicide and substance abuse prevention.

 

Becoming Present

rock dam worn potholes 2019

“For oral-history peoples, the air is ‘a thicket of meaning,’ full of stories and spirits.”

–  David Abrams

This understanding becomes more and more clear when we allow the space around us to enter, becoming continuous, rather than gazing out from a separate place.

Pebonkas: Winter Maker Moon

 

pebonkas winter maker moon 2019

The full moon shines tonight – in the last month of the solar year – just after midnight, on December 12, 2019 (by the modern Gregorian calendar). It is the middle of the final lunar cycle that began with the new moon on November 26 and which will renew on December 26. The lunar moon again comes close to aligning with the calendrical month within this cycle, as we pass from Tagu8go, the Autumn season, into Pebon, the Winter.

The twelfth full moon of the Western Abenaki solar year is the Winter Maker, Pebonkas, following the preceding eleventh month of  Mzatanos, the Freezing Current Maker. Another name for this moon is Kchikizos, the Great Moon. Within this cycle, the shortest day and the longest night of the year approaches on the Winter Solstice, on December 21st. Bare trees are silhouetted against the crystal blackness as Nanibosad, the all-night walker, crosses the sky world in all her glory.

The name of the moon is a combination of simple roots: “pebon” which signifies “winter” combined with “k-a-s” as an abbreviated form for “maker” and “moon” together. It is pronounced PEH-buhn-kahs, the Winter Maker Moon. The alternate name, Kchikizos, is a combination of the two words “kchi” for “great” and “kizos” for the “full moon.” It is pronounced kih-TSEE-kee-zoose, the Great Moon.

As the Solstice marks the reversing of the sun’s path, the daylight very slowly begins to grow in length – the beginning of the new year. The winter weather, however, continues to grow colder, due to the delay caused by the earth’s thermal mass. It continues to lose the heat it soaked up in summer, until the sun’s rays become strong enough to counter the loss with life-affirming Spring. In the cold and dark, stories are told around the fire as a reminder of how everything changes, over and over. And as this cycle ends, another begins.

Wabanaki Tribes Growing Heirloom Seeds for Heritage & Health

wabanaki ancestral squash

Maine’s Passamaquoddy people are once again growing and eating ancestral crops and saving the often rare seeds. These simple yet significant acts are tied to new research that sheds light on the sophisticated agriculture and accompanying plant-centric diet of the early Wabanaki people of northeastern North America, who lived and farmed in what we call Maine for 12,000 years before the European migration and colonization…

Planting these heirloom seeds is part of a wider effort by the Passamaquoddy to increase the amount of food produced on tribal land.  All the ancestral seeds have been linked to tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which includes the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki.

In 2014, Koasek Abenakis, the Seeds of Renewal Program and retired Johnson State College humanities professor Frederick M. Wiseman, who is Abenaki, gave these ancestral seeds to the Passamaquoddy tribe at Motahkokmikuk. The following spring, the seeds returned to Passamaquoddy soil and flourished.

Read the full article in the Press Herald here.

 

Wanascatok: Wanaskatekw

wanasquatok wanaskwatekw

A deep, green pool at Broad Brook, toward the top of the main gradient, near the site of one of the first mills in Guilford, Vermont. 

Wanascatok (sometimes, later, as Wanasquatok) is the name historically attached to Broad Brook, which flows from the heart of today’s Town of Guilford, Vermont into the Kwenitekw just below the Brattleboro/Vernon line. It is recorded thus in the 1687 colonial land deed, the last of several that together constituted the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts. The deed covered an area of about 65,000 acres identified as Nawelet’s land, and was signed by that person, identified as a chief of the Squakheags, along with Gongequa, Aspiabemet, Haddarawansett, and Meganichcha (as recorded). The legality of these deeds will be discussed elsewhere; suffice it to say this document is a good primary source on several counts.

1687 nawelet wanascatok northfield deed

A transcription of the 1687 Northfield land deed by Nawelet with four others, from Temple and Sheldon’s “A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts: for 150 Years, with an Account of the Prior Occupation of the Territory by the Squakheags.”

A contemporary Abenaki spelling would be Wanaskatekw, which roughly translates as “end of the river” or even “the rivers meet.” Wanask- signifies ‘an end’ or ‘a meeting’ and -tekw is ‘river’, as in ‘flowing, moving water.’ The reason for applying this name to this particular place requires a little exploration, informed by some familiarity with the lay of the land. Broad Brook is a medium-sized tributary of the Connecticut, with a watershed of 23.8 square miles. Since it is obviously not at the end of the Connecticut, the reference is likely to the end of Broad Brook itself – in other words, the point of its confluence with the larger river, the place where they meet. This, in turn, indicates that Wanaskatekw is not the name of the brook after all, but indicates the specific location at its mouth, as a landmark. This fits with its use in the 1687 Northfield deed to denote the northernmost bound of the land running up the west side of the Connecticut. For some reason,  later historians (not Native speakers) presumptively chose to spell the word as ‘Wanasquatok’, adding the ‘qua’ or kwa’ sound, but this is not the original form.

It follows that this location was familiar to the Sokwakiak inhabitants, and, by extension, the earliest Euro-colonizers (more on this elsewhere); amateur collectors, known to include Jason Bushnell, and probably Walter Needham and John Gale, were active in this immediate vicinity in the last century. The topography has all the hallmarks of a good site: fresh water, a confluence, good visibility, well-drained, sheltering hills to the west, and readily defensible. There are substantial wolhanak (rich alluvial planting lands) immediately adjacent, much of which are now submerged since the 1909 construction of the Vernon hydroelectric dam four miles downstream.

Bushnell Old Red Mill Vernon VT

A postcard for Jason Bushnell’s museum at the Old Red Mill in Vernon, VT, where he displayed his life’s collection of “Indian relics” and oddities. It burned down in 1962.

There was a convergence of trails here also. The primary north-south path on the west side of the Kwenitekw – the Great River Road – ran parallel to the Connecticut, hugging the bottom of the closely encroaching hills. And there was a path running west from here up the narrow ravine of Broad Brook itself, which rises in a steep gradient of about 200 feet in a mile and a half, to a lush valley nestled in the uplands. It is recorded that the earliest British settlers of what is now Guilford Town took this trail to stake their claims, first among them being Micah Rice at Weatherhead Hollow in 1761; it is the only ready access point to the uplands from the Long River and became the first road.

It should be kept in mind that place-name references in Algonquian language usages are nearly always directly descriptive, referring to observable natural attributes. Any place that matches a set of general descriptives may carry a similar toponym, in its own context. The name Wanascatok, or a variant, appears in several other places in New England. It fits here, once one is familiar with the circumstances.

The Welsh Not

the welsh not

From a Facebook post by Angharad Wynne, November 17, 2019.

Colonization is a worldwide disease. That commonality is the reason behind the naming of Indigenous Peoples’ Day: a plural joint possessive. When we fall into the trap of singling out one group over another, we enforce the separation, and the anthropocentricity – as if ‘it’s all about us.’

The grounding, unifying center of the healing answer to this destructive imbalance is the Land. This is how Indigenous People envision their identity – they and the Land are the same. And this is why Indigenous People are the prime obstruction to – the target of – colonization.

And it is why the answers are necessarily Place-based, each to itself, and in the traditional knowledges of these Places, held by the Original People of those Places. The work starts ‘at home’, in Place, dismantling the oppression of the Land and the People.

The past of this Place, and all Places, is embedded in this Land. It didn’t “go somewhere else.” It is here. Everything that has happened in this Place remains. The present, then, is created from the past, in the fullest sense of the word. And the future, in turn, is created from what we choose to do today. There is the essence of our mutual and individual responsibility.

This is the path to rebuilding the connections that lead to vitality, health, caring, respect, and gratitude. In a word, balance. Miss this critical starting point, and the whole effort collapses – the chaos and destruction continues.

#decolonize #StartHereAndNow