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American Indian Youth and Depression - Using Traditions To Heal The Wounds

When most people hear the words American Indian, visions of warriors on horses, feathers, or an 'Indian Princess' dance vividly in their heads. Instead, who they are is a culture of people who traditionally educate their children through oral traditions taught from generation to generation, day-to-day life, and sacred ceremonies that included song, dance and stories told to them by elders and spiritual leaders in the community.

To give you a better look at American Indian life today I will switch my focus over to the Lakota Nation of South Dakota. Home to such leaders like Black Elk, Crazy Horse and Fools Crow, the land in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge reservation is now the place of a people who remain strong in spirit like their warrior ancestors while trying to live in an economically depressed condition where the unemployment rate can be as high as 85% at times. Many Lakota people on the Pine Ridge reservation live in government housing (or worse), while the children there attend boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools were originally set up to try to civilize the 'savages'. The children were forced to separate from their families and community, while at the same time were forbidden to express themselves through their native culture and language. Changes have been made slowly over more recent years- allowing parental involvement and introducing traditional teachings into the school's curriculum.

Because of the acts done to the American Indian people like genocide and attempts at taking their culture and traditions away, many generations have suffered emotional, mental, spiritual and physical damage. To the Lakota people these four things alone are important to rearing stable, self-sufficient children who can then go on to live productive lives as adults. The damage done through genocide and the rape of their culture didn't occur just once, but slowly and over time. From generation to generation they have struggled to live in two worlds- that of their people and the one which they were forced into.

Across the board the rates for depression, suicide, many physical diseases and crime are greater for American Indians than they are for any other race. The rate of suicide among American Indians age 10-14 is almost 4 times higher than it is for young people from other ethnic groups. Being raised by parents and grandparents who have endured the repression of their culture over many years definitely has an effect on the youth in their communities.

Of course there is always free will and the ability for each person to make their own choices regarding how they live their lives, but under such circumstances as these, living with a lack of stability and balance, how can these young people make good choices for themselves? I believe that it cannot be done unless they are given something to stand on- a stable foundation for them to fall back on and begin from.

Because the American Indian culture has always been richly-infused with their teachings and spiritual way of life, many psychologists along with native leaders are coming together to bring back the connections for the youth that they so desperately need. This can foster well-being and help to prevent such mental disorders like depression and suicide among the youth in these communities.

In Porcupine, South Dakota, the Children First Corp. run by Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs, is using mainstream treatments in conjunction with traditional American Indian methods. The inipi (purification ceremony) is a sacred ceremony for purifying the mind, body and spirit. By going through this ceremony it gives them a stronger foundation to start with before problems can arise.

The Lakota naming ceremony is traditionally done when a baby is born. They are given a Lakota name that "anchors them to the earth" and connects them to their culture and their family in a deep way.

For children who have suffered more traumatic events like abuse, their spirit can become damaged and actually leave their body, like a disconnection of sorts. In these cases they would hold a ceremony to call back the spirit so it can re-connect with the mind and body.

People like Ethleen Iron Cloud Two Dogs along with mental health professionals, volunteers and Lakota people are slowly connecting the children back with the traditional ways and it has been shown to pay off in recent years. By giving them instruction in the schools about the history and culture of their people along with the spiritual ceremonies and teachings of generations past, they are infusing the children with the stability that they so desperately need for prospering in today's world.

Once the children can integrate daily living with native traditions so important to their culture and by getting help and support from the adults in the community by fostering that strong family bond, they can keep their mind, body, emotions and physical self healthy and the rates for depression and suicide among them will lesson greatly.

Lisa Hoskins is a jewelry designer who owns Animal Spirit Jewelry. She has studied animals her whole life and is now blessed from Spirit to be able to create jewelry based upon the spiritual principles revolving around animal totems and guides. You can find her website at http://www.animalspiritjewelry.com

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