By Kola Shippentower-Thompson
How does one describe Indigenous identity?
Hundreds of years ago, talks about “Indigenous identity” would not have taken place. We were who we were. The People. The Original People. We didn’t have to explain who we were, what we were doing or what value we brought. We simply existed and thrived.
Fast forward to modern times, and our reality is different. Indigenous people must fight for everything: The air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we inhabit. We must fight to exist. However, that fight — against oppression from non-Natives, the government, law enforcement, etc. — is only one aspect of our battle. There is another aspect that hits a little closer to home: The fight to be accepted amongst our own.
Naturally, the combination of our complex and traumatic history, ongoing oppression and internal identity crises all weigh heavily on our emotional well-being and mental health. For these reasons, we are seeing upticks in depression, anxiety, suicide and even homicide rates among Indigenous people.
It is time that we make our mental health a priority.
Now that we are beginning to have more honest conversations — turning a critical eye to history and sharing the current experience of Indigenous people — we are getting to the root of our mental health struggles.
We’re shedding light on a rising crisis in the disappearance and murder of Indigenous people; we’re uncovering an ugly past of assimilation in schools; we’re calling out the broken treaties and the ways in which the government still does not hold up their end of the bargain, today. These awareness movements and conversations are critical. However, this exposure to past trauma and generational trauma is painful to relive.
Additionally, a harsh reality for many Indigenous people is a fight to exist amongst our own. One painful product of colonialism is its ability to turn a family and a people against one another — in the form of blood quantum (a measure of the amount of Native American blood an individual can prove that they have), certificates of Indian Blood, assimilation of culture and traditions. Comments like “you must be mixed,” and judgments like, “what do you know?” spur a new level of identity crisis.
Imagine, for a moment, trying to explain yourself to an aunt or an uncle that, no matter what knowledge you bring to the table, it’ll never be enough. So here you are, not “Indian enough...” for anyone. This kind of rejection compounds the pain of generational trauma and current injustices.
As a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment by law enforcement, I felt as though I needed to take the fight for my own Indigenous identity into my own hands. I wanted to make sure that every space I inhabited felt my presence. I wasn’t going to be a victim to the atrocities our people have faced anymore. I wasn’t going to end up on the other side of the statistics. I saw a need, because of my own journey, that our women needed a plan. A plan to stand up to power and to preserve our emotional well-being — a plan to ensure our survival.
I created the Wisàwca Project to further the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Relatives movement (MMIW). The initiative, which helps families to create a written safety plan to be given to loved ones in the event of a disappearance, acts as a response to law enforcement’s handling of missing persons cases; many of our reports or complaints are met with victim blaming, shaming and stereotyping.
Ultimately, this project channels the strength and resilience passed down from our ancestors by saying, “We are enough, we are important and we are still here.” We are still present. I believe this to be particularly impactful for those struggling with mental health because we are taking back our power and demanding to be seen.
Indigenous people are born with an advantage, and it flows through our veins. I have been so fortunate to have been raised traditionally by my grandparents and parents, while given the freedom to grow into who I am today. If it were not for this upbringing and reminders of who I am, this work would’ve been impossible.
Our culture is beautiful. Our culture is strong. Our culture is resilient. But the emotional and mental toll it can take on one’s life is taxing, to say the least. Additionally, the existing mental health resources aren’t sufficient to keep up with community needs — and many community members don’t trust the programs available to them. Historically, the government systems that were supposed to help failed us.
I hope to see more mental health resources readily available — and to see more Indigenous people using available resources. I also hope to break down cultural barriers that prevent people from speaking openly about health. An open, honest discussion is the first step.
The fight for our mental health — for peace, happiness and to simply be Indigenous — continues today. Whether it be in the form of hunting, fishing, gathering our traditional foods, beadwork, dancing, working at a restaurant, modeling, playing basketball or taking up graphic design — we all have the same goal, to just be.
I don’t think our ancestors ever meant for us to judge each other for how “Indian” we can be. I believe they meant for us to live, be happy, love one another and take care of the Earth and our people. I hope that in advocating for our personal safety and mental health, I’m contributing just a little bit to the preservation and survival of our people for generations to come.
Chawnuh muun naampta — We will never fade.
Kola Shippentower-Thompson (Tumhiya) is an enrolled tribal member of the CTUIR. A mother and wife, she’s also a professional fighter in mixed martial arts. With the numbers of cases rising in violent crimes against Indigenous women, Kola has created and developed the Wisàwca Project. This personal safety coaching provides participants a means to advocate for themselves in many areas, including personal security, confidence and preservation.
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