Between the Lines: Guided By the Spirits

Jun 27, 2018

Seth Allard
Credit John Cardinal

Western Michigan University cultural anthropologist is a member of the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Living among the tribe, also known as the Ojibwa, while pursuing a master's degree at WMU, Allard came to the troubling realization of just how big a problem youth suicide is among Native Americans. He wrote a book about it: Guided by the Spirits: The Meanings of Life, Death, and Youth Suicide in an Ojibwa Community (Routledge, 2018).


To add faces to the narrative, Allard included stories and poems by members of the tribe. Allard says he was inspired to write the book because, “It was just something that stuck in my head. Before I started my graduate program, I was in my second year in my history program at Western, and I was doing an internship up in Sault St. Marie with the Inner Tribal Council. On the weekends I would spend time with three of the elders and I was getting back to my roots in a way I’d never had a chance to do before.”

On those weekends, Allard began to wonder why the parking lot at a local church was always so full.

“It was packed, probably 30 to 40 cars in there. I thought it must be a wedding, but the next week— packed again. And the week after — packed.”

Credit Routledge

Confused, Allard asked a tribal elder what was really going on. He was told that the crowd at the church was a support group of the Tribal Youth Program. It dealt with suicide prevention, bringing Native youth and families together.

Allard began his case study in Sault Ste. Marie using qualitative methods, indigenous experience, and collaborative approaches to explore the social and historical significance of youth suicide in an Ojibwa community.

“I don’t deal much with statistics in my book,” Allard says. “But statistically, the suicide rate among Native American youth nationally is 2.5 times the rate of youth from other races and ethnicities. That varies among tribes, so among some tribes, the suicie rate is as much as six, seven, or even ten times as high.”

Allard says there is no quick and easy answer why young Native Americans are so much more at risk. He says it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to pin down the answers.

“You do have some basic correlation between suicide and other factors,” Allard says. They include poverty, and substance abuse. There's also what Allard refers to as “intergenerational anger” because of the oppression of Native peoples through history. He says the days of forced attendance at boarding schools that suppressed their culture, which persisted in Michigan until 1983, still leaves its mark on generations born later on.

Seth Allard is a Pipe Carrier and Ogichiidaa of the Bowheting Ojibwa and a member of the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He has a master’s degree in anthropology from Western Michigan University. His research focuses on indigenous culture, history, and medical anthropology.

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