ɫokʷimas – You Are Strong





Content warning: this article speaks about suicide prevention, self-harm, addiction, and genocide.

My name is N’alaga (Avis O’Brien). My great-great-grandfather was Tom Wallace, who was a Hereditary Chief of our Gigəlǧəm ńəḿina. My great-great-grandmother was Eliza Assu. My connection to the Kwakwakəẃakw People comes from Liǧwiłdaxw Territory, specifically the Gigəlǧəm ńəḿina of Wewaikai. Our family has been deeply impacted by the colonial genocide enforced and enacted by the federal government of Canada. We have lost many family members to suicide, and my heart feels a deep yearning to offer a suicide prevention program in my Ancestral Territory. Great Spirit supports this work, and I believe it would bring much joy to our Liǧwiłdax Ancestors to see our young people engaging in this work.

I have lived with the spirit of suicide since I was 10 years old. In Canada, suicide is the leading cause of death of Indigenous people between the ages of 11 and 44 (Talaga, 2018). This statistic has not changed in over 50 years—a demonstration that the way our mental health system currently addresses suicidality does not help prevent it. Suicidality is a normal human response to carrying the burdens of 500+ years of attempted, and ongoing, colonial genocide.

In the spring of 2021, we lost Tamika Mountain, a warrior from Kwakwakəẃakw Territory. I didn’t know Tamika personally, but her passing affected me deeply. I no longer wanted to live in isolation with the spirit of suicide. I sent my vision of creating a suicide-prevention workshop for youth into the universe. Less than a year later, the program I developed—an 11-week suicide prevention initiative—was fully funded. The Great Spirit wanted this work to happen and supported the entire process.

The pilot program, in partnership with Comox Valley Transition Society, ran from September to December 2022. We brought together four young people ranging in age from 16 to 21 to engage in this work at Lake Trail School in K’ómoks Territory. Our team of five includes me as lead facilitator, Ivy Richardson as our Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher, Yola Willie and Kia Everson as our therapists, Verna Wallace, Verna Flanders, and James Quatell as our Elders, and Kirsten Dobler and Keisha Everson as our Kwakwala language teachers. Our facilitators all have ties to  Kwakwakəẃakw Territory.

The name of our program is Iokwimas, which is the Kwaḱwala term for You Are Strong. Iokwimas aims to create a safe space for youth to share their experiences authentically, and feel seen, heard, and supported in their struggles. As facilitators, we speak openly about our relationship to the spirit of suicide, work towards a culture of belonging and safety, and connect to guide youth safely back into their bodies and awaken their spirits.

We give back what was taken during the process of colonization because research shows us that suicidality and addiction result from the theft of our identity, culture, language, and connection to the land. Hallett et al. (2007) reported that, in Indigenous communities where 50 per cent or more of the people have a conversational knowledge of their language, the youth suicide rates dropped to zero. In communities where less than 50 per cent speak their traditional language, youth suicide rates were six times higher. We can’t move forward with the healing and empowerment of our people without language as a foundational part of that process.

Iokwimas provides youth with land-based, culturally rooted healing methodologies to regulate their nervous systems in place of self-harm, and to help them heal from trauma. Drumming, singing, dancing, cedar brushing, prayer, smudging, and cold-water cleansing are tools we offer. We share the research of Dr. Michael Yellow Bird who educates on what happens physiologically when we are engaged in Indigenous cultural practices. He calls this body of work neurodecolonization. Participants also explore the work of author and researcher Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, which shows that suicidality doesn’t appear when our nervous system is regulated, but instead when we are experiencing a trauma state or response such as disassociation/shutting down (a reaction by the dorsal vagal or fight/flight mode; which the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for). A dysregulated nervous system leads us to look outside ourselves for relief (or regulation), in such things as substances, over-exercising, food or starvation, staying busy, compulsive cleaning, self-harm, and suicidality.

The Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges is also taught. It highlights how trauma wires us for protection, instead of connection, due to the way trauma impacts our neuroception (a function of the autonomic nervous system). People living with complex trauma have a default neuroception of danger, which means they move through life expecting something bad to happen—misreading facial cues and seeing neutral faces as threatening. This is problematic because we don’t heal from trauma in isolation but in the context of relationships.

What if we changed our language around suicidality? What if instead of saying the leading cause of death of our people is suicide, we said the leading cause of death of our people is actually genocide? Genocide and colonization are not things of the past, things that happened 200 years ago and now are over. They are attempted and ongoing today.

Colonization can be seen in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Girls and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S), Indigenous over-representation in the opioid epidemic, and the fact that there are three times as many Indigenous children in foster care today than there were in residential schools during the height of that era. Indigenous people make up 5 per cent of the population, yet a 2019 report revealed that suicide rates in Canada are three times higher than the national average among the First Nations—twice the national average for Métis and nine times higher for Inuit. Conducted between 2011 to 2016, the study further revealed that the rates of suicide were higher in males than females (Kumar & Tjepkema, 2019). The rate at which Indigenous people are dying constitutes genocide—tools like the Indian Act have resulted in trauma becoming interwoven into the fabric of Indigenous lives.

You don’t reconcile genocide, you stop it.

Over the span of our 11-week pilot program, we witnessed youth reclaim their identity; awaken their spirits; find their voices; build a safe community; step into their power; and laugh, heal, and cry together. They connected the dots between suicidality and what has been done to our people. The impact we witnessed was far greater than what we envisioned. Youth came into the program knowing they were Indigenous, but without a connection to their identity. Their participation enabled them to reclaim and share their Indigenous Ancestry with pride. They picked up drums—perhaps for the first time—and found their voice to sing, loud and proud.

Our youth give me hope. They inspire me to keep working towards wellness, joy, abundance, and empowerment in our communities.

Thanks to the Vancouver Foundation for funding this initiative in the Comox Valley through the Indigenous Priorities Granting Stream. Thanks as well to the Comox Valley Transition Society for partnering with us as our intermediary to make this vision come to life for young people in K’ómoks Territory.

We have, in partnership with Robron Alternative Secondary School, applied for funding to again deliver this 11-week program in fall 2023 in Campbell River. If we receive funding, we will accept youth applications starting in July of 2023. Robron Alternative school is located on the unceded territory of the Liǧwiłdaxw People, which includes the Tribes of the Wewakai, Wewaikum & Kwikah Nations.

Please feel free to reach out to Avis at avisobrien@gmail.com for more information.