Sioux Valley Dakota Nation suicide prevention walk encourages cultural connection as path to healing

Sioux Valley High School students walked through the heart of their First Nation Friday for World Suicide Prevention Day, marking a commitment to strengthening and promoting Dakota culture, language and identity as a form of healing.

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation marks World Suicide Prevention Day with walk

Young students walk together hold signs promoting World Suicide Prevent Day.
Sioux Valley High School students walk in a suicide prevention walk on Friday, ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day, which is observed every year on Sept. 10. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Every step a group of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation students took Friday marked a commitment to strengthening Dakota culture, language and identity as a form of healing.

The students walked together in memory of those who have died by suicide ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on Saturday.

"My heart felt a little bit more heavy than usual — like I can feel people's sadness," said Grade 12 student Chloe Blacksmith.

Dozens of Grade 7 to 12 students participated in the Oyate Wiconi Pi Kte World Suicide Prevention Day walk on Friday through the heart of Sioux Valley, a First Nation about 260 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

 A 2019 study released by Statistics Canada reported First Nations people in Canada saw a suicide rate three times higher than the rate among non-Indigenous people. Suicide rates were highest in people 15 to 24 years old.

Blacksmith said she hopes the people who joined the walk left knowing they are not alone. She encouraged anyone experiencing mental health concerns to reach out for help, and to remember they are important and wanted in the community.

A young girl wearing heart shaped sunglasses holds a sign promoting world suicide prevention day.
Sioux Valley High School Grade 12 student Chloe Blacksmith, 17, holds a sign at Friday's walk. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

"I see … a lot of future helpers. I can see it already, with a lot of us [who] would want to try to make a difference in our community, especially with younger generations to come," Blacksmith said.

"I feel pretty empowered, I would say, seeing everyone here willing to learn their language … [and] learn more things about ourselves, our people."

Joyce Taylor is the elder at Sioux Valley High School.

"We've all been touched in one way or another by suicide," she said. "Over the past five to 10 years we've had quite a few suicides.… It seems like our community is forever mourning."

She hopes Friday's walk encourages people to find the strength to talk about mental health and help each other heal, and helps to prevent other lives from being lost.

"One suicide is too many," she said.

An elder sits on a bench looking out into the distance.
Sioux Valley High School elder Joyce Taylor sits at a picnic table. She says deaths by suicide in the community were rare when she was young. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

In October 2020, Sioux Valley declared a state of emergency after four community members died by suicide in the weeks prior. The First Nation's chief said the community was in desperate need of long-term mental health solutions, including more mental health workers and a healing lodge.

Taylor said when she was a child, deaths by suicide were a rarity in the community.

But social issues in Sioux Valley have been transformed by intergenerational trauma brought on by residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other colonial experiences, she said.

"Every day we're dealing with drug usage, alcoholism, violence, things that were never ours," said Taylor.

"That's because of the outside influences, European influences, and it just didn't happen within the last few decades. This kind of stuff has been going on since Christopher Columbus got lost and landed on our shores."

But seeing young people united gives her hope for a healthier future, because it shows the continued strengthening of Dakota culture and language, Taylor said.

Students walk holding signs for World Suicide Prevention day.
Sioux Valley High School students participate in Friday's walk. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Nobody is immune to the pain of intergenerational trauma, she said, but by standing together they can begin to heal. 

Taylor makes a point of telling the students that is possible to break the trauma cycle because Dakota people are "resilient and strong," and those traits are enhanced by reinforcing their language and culture, she said.

"You need to be proud.... We're resilient. We're still here," said Taylor. "We're assertive, we're strong ... and we can survive anywhere."

Her hope is students take that message to heart as the future leaders of the community.

A young person with short hair has their face half covered and shadow and half covered in light.
Sioux Valley High School Grade 10 students Shereen Ross, 15, said Friday's walk was an emotional experience. They have family members who have died by suicide. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Grade 10 student Shereen Ross, 15, said Friday's walk was an emotional experience because they have family members that have died by suicide.

They appreciate the push to heal the community through strengthening language and culture.

"I really want to learn my language and ... learn everything about the culture," said Ross.

Grade 9 to 12 teacher Suelee Innes said students were encouraged to attend the walk to ensure that they know help is available if they are going through difficult times.

In many cases, students have lost family members and friends to suicide, she said, and they might not even understand what happened to them. That's why it's important to make sure they know they can get help to talk about those experiences.

Students walk holding signs for World Suicide Prevention Day.
Part of the goal of Friday's walk was to build students up as leaders, said teacher Suelee Innes. 'The children are the future,' she said. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The other goal of the walk was to build them up as future community leaders, Innes said.

"The children are the future," she said. "We're trying to educate these young people to be able to be successful in life, and part of that is also working with their mental and emotional health."

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:


Chelsea Kemp

Brandon Reporter

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC's bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with