Vermont suicide rate highest among Native Americans

10/14/2019 – Guy Page – Today is Indigenous People’s Day, the first since the 2019 Legislature turned Columbus Day into a state holiday honoring pre-European dwellers, and their descendents, of the land we call Vermont.

Tomorrow from 10 am – 7 pm at UVM’s Davis Center, “Ceremony, Celebration and Education”, drums, art, and film will tell the story of the Vermont Native American past.  At present, an estimated 1900 Native Americans live in Vermont, with many others of both Native American and other ethnic groups in their family trees. The predominant tribe is Abenaki, with four separate state-recognized Abenaki groups, the largest living in the Swanton area. There are no federal reservations in Vermont, but the Akwesasne (Mohawk) reservation is in Franklin County, NY, just two counties over from Grand Isle and Franklin Counties in Vermont. 

To say the least, modern-day life for Vermont Native Americans isn’t all celebration. Community leaders are seeking solutions to a terrible problem: suicide.

According to an August 13 VT Biz report about a national study on suicide, Native Americans kill themselves at a higher rate than any racial group in Vermont: 22 per 100,000. They are followed by whites (17.8). Hispanics, blacks and Asians all are at about 7/100,000. 

The high incidence of suicide was discussed at a June, 2019 meeting of the Vermont Commission on Native-American Affairs, a state panel that includes many Native American community leaders. Jeff Benay, director of Indian Education for Franklin County schools and a longtime activist, “stressed that needs in the Abenaki community are profound,” according to minutes of the meeting. Suicide prevention is now a top-priority, and he secured a planning grant and subsequent implementation grant to work with the Abenaki community in Grand Isle County (where indigenous suicide is particularly high) to develop strategies to prevent it. It is hoped that it can be broadened into a statewide program.”

The minutes do not offer reasons for the high suicide rate, in Grand Isle County or elsewhere. However, a US government study identifies key suicide risk factors for Native Americans as depression, family trauma, alcohol, drug use, and trauma through cultural oppression. Of the latter, Vermont Abenakis in particular were victimized by the “progressive” Eugenics movement prevalent between 1920 and 1950. As reported in “Breeding Better Vermonters,” by Nancy Gallagher, Abenakis seeking to live as much as possible in traditional, migrational ways were mistaken by leading eugenist Henry F. Perkins for traveling gypsies, who among white Vermonters were believed to be thieves, and worse. Legislation was passed declaring children of said “rovers” to be wards of the state. Many were then seized by state officials and sent to state reformatories, where they suffered sterilization – sometimes without their knowledge. In fact, one Native American leader has said that his grandmother told him, “when you see those white cars from the State, head for the hills!”

In 2019, the Vermont Legislators gave Native American Vermonters their own “day.” In 2020, the same lawmakers may have an opportunity to put substance to the sentiment.