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Native and Strong suicide prevention campaign in Washington uses Indigenous voices

By Julien A. Luebbers The Spokesman-Review

In 2012, professional boxer and member of the Blackfeet tribe Joe Hipp lost his granddaughter to suicide. Hipp shifted his focus to bringing suicide prevention awareness to Natives, raising his voice within the community to help bring strength to those around him.

Last year, Hipp was featured in campaign materials for the Native and Strong campaign, a suicide prevention awareness project funded by the Washington Department of Health.

The digital, video and audio advertisements seeking to prevent suicide among American Indians and Alaskan Natives launched last July, garnering praise from Native groups and partners.

The Washington State Department of Health granted more than $1.1 million for the campaign, divided across two years. Native-specific messaging, information and resources are a priority, according to the health department, because of the high suicide rates among Indigenous populations and because of the importance of employing culturally appropriate and relevant information.

Non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaskan Native people have a 60% higher suicide rate than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The campaign was led by DH, a Spokane-based advertising firm with experience working on Native-specific projects, including the Starts with One opioid crisis campaign.

According to Alex Evans, senior account director at DH, early interviews with Washington tribal members and tribal youth showed Natives are aware of their trauma and that a campaign centered on suicide rates wasn’t going to help lower them. They needed to emphasize the voices of the Native people affected by these issues.

“There’s already enough sadness and disparity about that,” said Vicki Lowe, executive director for the American Indian Health Commission of Washington State, a descendant of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and the Bella Coola Nation in Canada. Lowe was a participant in DH’s review groups and research.

Lowe said the focus of suicide prevention campaigns developed by outside groups is on “poverty and money and capitalism,” but these programs fail to consider the significance of “intergenerational trauma and the effects of genocide on communities and individuals.”

There is a pronounced need for work that speaks specifically to the experience of Natives struggling with mental health and suicide, experts say.

One way DH involved Native communities was by hiring Counting Coup Media, a Spokane-based, Native-owned multicultural media business that had a major role in forming the campaign.

“When we’re discussing inherited trauma, and we’re discussing genetic depression, all of these things actually sounds crazy, but as far as my experience in Indian country is that almost every Indian in America is born with a sadness and anger in their heart,” said Ryan Abrahamson, a member of the Spokane Tribe and owner of Counting Coup Media.

“It’s important to see that another Indian understands. Coming at a Native American angle places importance on this inherited trauma that they feel like nobody else understands or even respects.”

Lowe said the best way to address Native suicide is to “talk about what is good in order to get to what is good.” The campaign follows that advice, engaging with what Lowe calls “protective factors,” culturally specific things from which individuals can draw strength.

Counting Coup was able to work closely with Native talent (all of the actors in the campaign are local) and to bring top-tier production to the media they produced.

“They’re used to cameras coming in, and asking questions about Indian country to raise awareness or for some political angle,” Abrahamson said of Indigenous groups. “They’re surprised and excited to see an Indian company coming in.”

The videos and images of the campaign depict family ties, elders and youth, sports, and cultural activities such as canoeing and dance. They were “just normal things that really would feel like, ‘That’s how I live my life,’ ” Lowe said.

Although the 29 federally recognized tribes across Washington do not have the same culture, “there are some similarities to draw from,” Lowe said. Review groups made up of tribal members and experts in Native behavioral health looked at what Counting Coup and DH produced and considered whether the results fit in to their cultures.

Julia Joyce, a substance use disorder professional and gambling outreach advocate for the Muckleshoot Tribe, participated in one such group.

“What I was responding to mostly was, did it fit in with the actual culture here? The Muckleshoot or Coastal Salish culture,” Joyce said.

The campaign used photos and video from across Washington’s diverse tribes from the rocky beaches of the Olympic peninsula to the woods and grasses of Central and Eastern Washington.

Hipp said the videos and photos from the Native and Strong campaign are effective because there is “so much variety of people that anyone watching it will identify with them,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a commercial with all Natives in it, and I think that’s a powerful statement,” Hipp said. “I think it was very effective for the Native people.”

Now, a year after the campaign’s launch, the campaign materials have been published across social media, streaming platforms, and in Native-owned publications. DH also reserved funding to specialize the materials for specific groups.

Sarah McNew, the coalition coordinator with West Spokane Wellness Partnership and a member of the Spokane Tribe, was one client that worked with DH to deploy Native and Strong materials in her area.

“Having relevant materials is important to us, and making sure that we have all populations that we work with and have in our community represented,” she said.

West Spokane Wellness Partnership was able to get campaign materials customized for their area and spread around the region. McNew said the group used brochures, billboards and included materials in their newsletters. They also connected other organizations to the campaign; the Spokane Tribe, for instance, worked with DH to design custom over-door basketball hoops bearing the campaign’s messaging.

The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive.

“We got thank-you’s back. Thanks for having us represented, that means a lot,” McNew said. “Having someone culturally representative on those billboards and in that media content, it shows that we’re still here, we have a voice, and that we’re resilient and that we’re strong and capable of overcoming anything, while also sending the message that culture is prevention.”

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