Indigenous Episcopal voices speak out on self harm, suicide at UN forum

By ENS staff
Posted Apr 27, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] Suicide and self-harm rates among indigenous youth in the United States and worldwide have reached epidemic rates, according to the young men and women who testified during the April 21 session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Indigenous Episcopal voices, part of a delegation organized and supported by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, were among those who offered testimony and recommendations during the general session which focused on self harm and suicide, on the second full day of April 20-May 1 forum on indigenous issues taking place at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business, and carries out mission. It is also the name recognized by the United Nations for The Episcopal Church’s official consultative presence there.

“As indigenous peoples, we consider ourselves connected not only to each other as relatives, but also to the Earth. The adverse effects of harmful environmental practices and extractive industries that provoke changes in our climate and environment are equivalent to collective, societal self harm,” read a statement on behalf of The Episcopal Church submitted by Jasmine Bostock, 24, a young adult and chair of the Executive Council Committee on Indigenous Ministry.

“These practices destroy our understanding of ourselves as part of the sacredness of all creation. Our relationship to land and water is broken by the removal of our lands and violation of our sacred sites. We urge you to think of the social message sent to native Hawaiian youth who are watching their elders be arrested for protecting their traditionally sacred mountain, Mauna Kea, from being appropriated for science.”

Bostock, who is a native Hawaiian from the Diocese of Hawaii, represented the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society at the session along with Cohen Adkins, 26, of the Chickahominy tribe in the Diocese of Virginia, who serves as an indigenous consultant to the Society, and Frank Oberly, 72, of the Comanche and Osage tribes, from the Diocese of Oklahoma, who also serves on the Committee on Indigenous Ministries.

The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council; its mandate is to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The Episcopal Church was granted special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council in July 2014; more than 80 percent of the U.N.’s work happens in the council, which also is the agency through which non-government organizations have official affiliation and relationships with the U.N. and its agencies.

“This accreditation allows The Episcopal Church, under the leadership and oversight of the presiding bishop, to submit statements and make oral interventions, in line with the church’s policy and positions as expressed at General Convention and Executive Council, at particular UN meetings,” said Lynnaia Main, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s global relations officer. “It also allows the church to bring delegates to observe certain U.N. meetings, including the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The forum consists of experts who consult with indigenous peoples on matters of social and economic concern, and the experts act as an advisory body to the UN’s Economic and Social Council and member states.”

Now in its 14th year, the forum presents an opportunity for the indigenous delegates observe sessions, gain experience with the workings of the international body, network and identify how the indigenous issues being discussed connect with The Episcopal Church. Though Episcopalians have attended previous forums, joining Anglican Communion delegations, it was the first time Episcopalians represented The Episcopal Church.

“Together with the Missionary Society, the delegates were able to experience firsthand the global process of dialogue by which the permanent forum experts listen to and consult with indigenous peoples’ representatives and organizations, and other non-governmental organizations,” said Main.

Having access to a global forum provides an additional avenue for Episcopalians to live out the Baptismal Covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and to live out marks three, four and five of the Five Marks of Mission: to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation; to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth, respectively, added Main.

“All of these Marks of Mission are shared in a common spirit with those who gather at the United Nations. The United Nations community provides a microphone by which we can voice our issues of concern and share expertise, a common space in which we can network and take part in dialogues on many critical subjects, and a learning platform for global best practices and training that we can take back home to our communities,” she said.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for indigenous youth and young adults ages 15-24, with women three times more likely to commit suicide than men, according to the U.S. Indian Health Service.

Anger, depression, hopelessness: All are emotions that underlie the thoughts that cause indigenous youth to harm themselves and commit suicide at higher than average rates, said one indigenous youth member who spoke during the forum on self harm and suicide during the April 21 morning session.

After trying to destroy indigenous people physically, the majority white-dominated society turned to destroying indigenous culture and spirituality, he continued.

“The church holds a particular role in recognizing and healing brokenness in the world; I think that is so baptismal and so central to Christian faith,” said Bostock, during an interview with Episcopal News Service on April 21 before testifying at the morning session.

“I’ve seen in indigenous ministries time and time again this sort of search for where indigenous spirituality crosses with our identity as Christians, and for me obviously, more specifically our identity as Episcopalians. And I think this issue is one where the two really intersect. In our statement we talk a lot about indigenous spirituality and indigenous understanding of one’s self being related to all things in creation, being a relative to all people, being a relative to all things – and so seeing suicide and self harm not as independent from anything else, but as a direct result of the different ways in which our relationships to the earth, to one another and to ourselves have been broken.”

The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, responding to the collective discernment of The Episcopal Church, including the 2009 General Convention’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, has actively engaged in a variety of ministries for healing historical and generational trauma, directed towards youth.

“Restoring right relations with indigenous peoples is a priority for our Church. As Christians, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image and that our scriptures, the way of Jesus Christ and our Baptismal Covenant call us to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons.’ We grieve and lament with our indigenous young people, their families and communities when they suffer,” read the statement submitted to the U.N. by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

Based on the experience and witness of the church, the statement made recommendations aimed at eradicating the “harmful root causes that inflict pain” on young people causing them to harm themselves:

  • Promote positive images of indigenous peoples in social settings and remove harmful mascot images, so that young people can take pride in their indigenous identity rather than feel devalued by the larger society.
  • Expand school curricula to include the positive, meaningful contributions of indigenous peoples to the narratives about each country’s formation, history and society.
  • Restore to indigenous peoples their rightful place on lands and in government structures, so that they are not oppressed, marginalized, unfairly represented, or bereft of resources and services.

There are 566 federally recognized tribes spread across the United States, explained Adkins, with The Episcopal Church having a strong presence among Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians, the Navajo, the Lakota, the Oneida, the Ojibwa and others.

One of the ways the church and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society are working to reduce suicide and self-harm rates is through connecting youth in person and through social media, said Cohen, adding that the indigenous community subscribes to a very traditional high church, so indigenous people feel the stigma associated with suicide and self harm more than others.

And it’s something Oberly and others have been working on. As the former chair of the Executive Council Committee on Indigenous Ministries and who has long served in leadership roles in the church, Oberly formed the Indigenous Theological Training Institute, which is working to develop a resource for parishes and other community organizations that work in areas where suicide and self-harm rates are high.

The church, he said, isn’t just talking about work, but is doing it, which makes it a strong partner for other organizations and institutions.

It’s important for The Episcopal Church to be present at forums like the one presented at the United Nations and to be involved in constructive conversation and dialogue, said Bostock, adding that she’d like to see the church utilized as a partner in addressing the indigenous people’s struggles.

“The church can’t do it alone,” she said, adding that both the church and the United Nations have their own methods and procedures for introducing resolutions and adopting policy, but only through collaboration can results be seen.

“The more collaboration we can see, the happier world we can see. If you are not willing to connect and collaborate, you will forever be a voice calling out in the wilderness, and that’s not our call,” said Bostock. “Our call is … to seek and recognize Christ in all persons and to serve all people.”


Comments (2)

  1. Karen R. Fedorchak says:

    It sounds as if the topic of mental illness needs to be introduced and health professionals should be involved to help the indigenous populations to understand there are many factors that lead to suicide,depression and hopelessness. There are many resources available to help . I am a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institute of Mental Health is very helpful. There are suicide hot lines also.

  2. K. Hayes says:

    I’m very glad to see the work that’s being done and particularly the recognition of the historical traumas and injustices that affect indigenous communities today. May the work towards justice and peace continue.

    It’s very common to attribute this problem to indigenous people not understanding mental health. The idea that indigenous people don’t know what’s best for themselves can itself be an example of the stereotypes that indigenous youth and adults live with daily. In the past, this certainty has led Christian leaders in the U.S. to forbid native languages and religious practices, to kidnap children from their homes and force them to grow up in white culture, to attempt over and over to “kill the Indian and save the man” by forcefully educating indigenous people in the ways that the imperial culture considered best ( I know that the knee-jerk reaction is that we’re better now, but the damage goes on. Sacred sites in Hawaii are right now being seized and demolished ( Treaties are still being broken ( I agree that there are definitely many factors that lead to suicide, depression and hopelessness. Many of those factors are sociocultural, and we cannot afford to overlook those. I appreciate the steps laid out in this article for ways that the Church can advocate for social justice and reconciliation.

    Community psychology and working with existing cultural authorities is way to empower people and communities to help themselves. They’re pretty academic, but I’d encourage checking out the work of Michael Kral if you are interested in some ways in which psychologists have worked together with communities, especially in indigenous communities, to address the crisis of suicidality, self-harm, and high-risk behaviors among indigenous Inuit young people. Likewise, Gone (2008) is available for free ( and goes over some of the conflicts between mainstream U.S. culture, including conceptions of mental health, and American Indian people with values of place and space.

    Working to understand and connect in times of crisis across cultural differences is tough, complex work. I pray for all the best for those involved in this ministry.

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