GREAT FALLS – The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council (FBICC), which consists of 10 council members representing two tribes, the Nakoda and Aaniiih Tribes, recently declared a state of emergency.
The Tribal Health Department’s Empowering Inner Strength Program has reported a large number of suicides and attempted suicides in recent months.
“We’ve experienced recently a rash of suicides that has our communities in a panic. It’s not only the suicides — we also have a very high amount of unsuccessful attempts on a daily basis,” FBICC Public Relations and Policy Analyst Alissa Snow said.
There are over 8,000 enrolled Fort Belknap tribal members, which includes both the Nakoda and Aaniiih tribes. About 4,500 people live on the reservation. The Indian Health Service at Fort Belknap has only released preliminary numbers from 2019.
According to IHS, three of the five suicides reported in the Fort Belknap community this year happened in the past month.
There have also been 26 attempted suicides in the community and another 21 reports of people having talked to someone at IHS about thoughts of suicide.
The numbers do not include the Tribal Health Department’s Empowering Inner Strength numbers.
“That’s part of the issue in understanding this epidemic, is we don’t have solid data,” Connie Filesteel, a Special Projects Organizer with the FBICC, said.
The Fort Belknap Indian Community is currently working on streamlining data between the Indian Health Service and the Tribal Health Department.
Filesteel believes the issue stems from the historical traumas and policies the federal government took against the American Indian people.
“Reservations, across the country, but primarily in Montana, deal with high poverty rates,” she said. “High incidences of alcoholism, meth use, and crime are happening within our communities as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.”
“Combined with this, we’re also really isolated, very rural. Our reservation spans 30 miles east to west and about 60 miles north to south, covering close to 670,000 acres, with high isolation here and limited access to resources,” Filesteel added.
Recent suicides on the Reservation — either attempted or completed — have occurred predominantly within teens and young adults.
Besides dealing with different variables that stem from historical trauma, Filesteel believes youth are also dealing with many other issues.
“I think what we’re experiencing now is called suicide contagion and the impacts of social media. Additionally, our youth are dealing with things in their home life that they shouldn’t be dealing with.”
The Fort Belknap Indian Community is a sovereign nation and has a government-to-government relationship with the United States government. By declaring a state of emergency, they hope to receive state and federal funding to properly address the crisis.
“What the Fort Belknap Indian Community hopes the declaration of the emergency will accomplish is funneling in more resources into the community,” Filesteel said.
“So we can get more people, more boots on the ground, more services for our people to prevent as well as address postvention of suicides that are occurring.”
Despite experiencing so much loss, members of the community have come together.
“It’s the people of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, who will be the ones to come up with solutions in addressing this epidemic. What you see within probably the last two or three weeks is the community really coming together to work on a plan.”
Both Snow and Filesteel said the Tribal Health Department’s ‘Empowering Inner Strength,’ which consists of around six people with some volunteers, has responded to all suicide attempts. The program has also held various sessions within the community on how to handle the situation.
“I know it’s hard to think of anything positive coming out of such a tragedy, but if you could say one thing it’s the community coming together and the things we’ve accomplished and the action we’ve taken as a community to address this,” Snow said. “Focusing on the resiliency of our Native communities is the message we want to put out there.”
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Indian and Alaska Natives have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the Montana Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-8255 or text “MT” to 741 741.