Liberalism and the Politics of Native American Youth Suicide

I have no credentials that set me apart as an authority on the end of life. I have, however, encountered a type of death, youth suicide, in an intimate manner. While living and working on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation I saw such death with regularity. I hope to illuminate how the unfulfilled promises of political liberalism have led to a society in which suicide has become both more appealing and more acceptable. Serious reflection must be done on the nature and history of liberalism, and its distortions, to understand how the present epidemic of suicide in such communities can be halted.

On reservations and in other politically marginalized communities in the United States, the suicide rate is drastically higher than in the remainder of the population. The statistics are, admittedly, staggering. For American Indian/Alaska Native young adults ages 15 to 34, the rate of suicide is over two times higher than the national average. On certain reservations this number can climb to four or five times higher than the national average. Nine people between the ages of 12 and 24 committed suicide between December 2014 and March 2015 on Pine Ridge; on this reservation another 103 attempts occurred from this age group during this time. During my time teaching, two of my students committed suicide. The statistics can quickly become terrifying, discouraging, and paralyzing. I hope to use these startling numbers as an avenue for framing the problem of Native youth suicide given the overarching context of liberalism.

What is Liberalism?

First, we must begin with an understanding of contemporary liberalism. I don’t intend to link liberalism with all attempted suicide. Each decision to take one’s own life is born of tragic and unique circumstances. I also firmly believe that the disproportionate number of suicides found in some of our country’s most vulnerable communities is the result of a vast and complicated web of history. Rather, I seek here to evaluate how the historic application of liberalism and its logic may help to explain the prevalence of youth suicide in certain communities in the Western world.

Liberalism, not to be confused with any particular political party, is the primary political philosophy undergirding government in the Western world. Under this philosophy, the central task of government becomes securing the equality and freedom of each citizen, so that all individuals may pursue their own understanding of the “good life.” Liberalism has appealed to “reasonableness” to ensure all freedom, rights, and equality among its citizens. This reason, however, cannot be corrupted or influenced by cultural or religious commitments. Rather, a secular reason alone--accessible and agreed upon by all rational citizens—ensures the freedom and autonomy of the individual citizen above all else. This emphasis on reason has resulted in a attitude toward the place of religion, culture, and tradition within political life that has frequently marginalized life paths that fail to align with a Western understanding of reason.

It must be acknowledged that America’s liberalism has become a beacon of hope for many immigrants and refugees, among others. This promise of liberalism has benefited untold multitudes with new life and hope for the future in the United States.

However, in spite of liberalism’s capacity to aid many, it has been unequally applied within the American context. While it seeks to cultivate a context in which every individual can choose from among many options what goods to pursue for himself or herself, the liberal marketplace has historically and intentionally excluded Native religions. The federal government has banned or heavily regulated Native articulations of the “good life” for the majority of our country’s history.

Historically Excluded

Thus, the right of white, Christian settlers to claim land on the frontier trumped the rights of previous Native inhabitants. Native communities lost the right to educate their youth to a government whose primary objective for Native education was assimilation. Native language, religion, land, and culture have been categorically excluded from the liberal marketplace of ideas. Liberalism has historically cast judgments about what can be considered “the good life,” despite its claims to neutrality. The weak efforts now to place Native religions on equal footing in the public sphere do little to remedy the history of injustice.

Native language, religion, land, and culture have been categorically excluded from the liberal marketplace of ideas.

Liberalism has sought to mollify individuals from such marginalized cultures through the promise that it can still provide a fulfilling life for them. By shedding the “illiberal” aspects of identity, liberalism claims that opportunities to succeed will inevitably arise. However, given the history of injustice and exclusion, such promises are empty for many individuals within our country.

On the reservation, I saw generations who experienced the shadow side of liberalism: a grandmother educated in a mission boarding school that punished the use of indigenous languages; a father without a job, heavily dependent on the government to pay for what he could once hunt for himself; a student who listens to the romanticized suburban angst of Taylor Swift while sharing a two bedroom trailer with 10 cousins. Each of these individuals sees the opportunities afforded within the liberal system: education, opportunity, and freedom. Yet each individual experiences the sting of a disproportionately applied liberalism.

The Impact on Youth

Youth from these cultures have been caught between conflicting messages. On the one side, their families and community seek to instill a love for traditions, practices, and culture within them. On the other side, the state subtly inculcates promises about what type of people and what types of belief succeed in contemporary society. When liberalism’s promises of fulfillment fail, many youth are left disenchanted by a world that will not accept their culture but will not provide them meaningful opportunities for social mobility. In a political culture that has preached the ultimate in autonomy and liberty, many youth on reservations have made a decision that exercises liberalism’s ideals in their most distorted form.

I do not intend to suggest that liberalism inevitably breeds a logic of suicide. The narrative is not so simple. Rather, the historical implementation of liberalism, along with its contemporary inability to take seriously culture and tradition, create a social context in which suicide is an acceptable pathway for handling broken promises and unfulfilled expectations.

Churches and Christians within local communities bear a moral obligation to think about these complex issues and questions. The Church was at best a bystander and at worst complicit in the advancement of a liberal empire. Christians benefited from this unequal application of liberalism, gaining from the loss and marginalization of Natives.

Now we must dedicate time, thought, and effort to considering how the epidemic of youth suicide on reservations can be ended. We need language and tools to affirm and recognize Native culture, traditions, and religion. We must seek to train a generation of Christians who can speak meaningfully about difference in a way that does not demean non-western cultures.

Christians cannot operate as ‘saviors’ for Native youth. Rather, Christians must act as partner in questioning and critiquing a societal logic that leaves Native children vulnerable. A Christian vocabulary that refers to the image of God, common grace, and love must challenge the language of liberalism that has come to dominate and condemn many marginal communities. Individuals and churches must live in solidarity with vulnerable communities, laboring create discourse around the political worth of love, justice, and faith—traits often neglected within liberalism. The Church must take seriously the convictions expressed within Native religions. We as Christians must affirm the truth in liberalism while identifying the distortions within its contemporary form that have given space to the politics of suicide.

 - Ben Gibson is a student in Yale Divinity School’s Masters of Religion program. He spent the past two years teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

What You Can Do:

1. Read Native news written by Native authors ( rather than simply getting it through mainstream media.

2. Seek to support pre-existing non-profits, churches, and organizations on reservations.

3. Delve more deeply into the history of reservations in your area or Native groups indigenous to your region.