Monday, January 12, 2015

Suicide on the Reservation

Grim news from Brazil:
Friends and family gathered around the limp body of a 15-year-old boy laid out on a bed in a thatched hut near the Brazilian town of Iguatemi, close to the border with Paraguay. A shaman shook a small wooden rattle while chanting and dancing — final rites for yet another victim of a suicide epidemic that has plagued the Guaraní Indians of the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The boy, Dedson Garcete, had hanged himself — one of 36 suicides among tribe members in 2014 through September, and one of about 500 among the tribe of 45,000 since 2004, according to Zelik Trajber, a pediatrician with the special secretariat for indigenous health within the Ministry of Health in Mato Grosso do Sul. 
And it isn't just the Guarani:
In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death, behind accidents, 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, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In every part of the world there are particular factors that one can point to as causes -- in the case of the Guaraní, high levels of violence and brutal treatment by ranchers and farmers who want their land. But it seems to me that the phenomenon of native despair is too prevalent and widespread to be explained on a case by case basis. Looking around the world, I get the sense that for many people it just really sucks to belong to one of these marginalized, half-conquered cultures:
James Anaya, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples from 2008 to last May, 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.
To look from the rain forest toward the gleaming cities of Brazil gives many Indians a sense of inferiority, which is then exacerbated by the scornful treatment of their neighbors, the police, store owners, etc. Even the curiosity of anthropologists can be a slap in the face -- may I please study your quaint ways before they disappear? Defending their lands by force is a battle lost before it begins, in the face of helicopters and automatic weapons. That means tribes must rely on the good graces of remote governments to defend them against encroachments by greedy neighbors. Some governments do want to defend native tribes; even Brazil, which has a pretty poor record on this score, has lately expelled some farmers and returned land to the Guaraní. But this means traveling to big cities and hiring lawyers and appearing in court within the white man's world, an experience that could not be better designed to intimidate traditional peoples and drive home their weakness and dependence.

Modern culture, rooted in the west but increasingly a global phenomenon, is taking over the planet, presenting others the choice of joining or being left behind. For many born into other traditions, the choice is hard, and none of the outcomes very good. People who try wholeheartedly to join the global culture face nasty racism and digs at their roots in the bush, besides the loss of the world they grew up in. Avoiding the global culture entirely is all but impossible, and it means things like not seeking modern medicine when your child comes down with an alien disease. So millions have ended up in the same in-between state as the Guaraní, trying to combine the best of worlds.Some people manage this trick, but for all too many it is a slow-motion disaster.

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