Portland ranked number 12 in a 2011 article listing the top 15 suicidal cities in the United States, according to businessinsider.com. The Healing Feathers Suicide Prevention Awareness Project has made it its mission to lower these numbers.
“I know we have one student here that told us there were about two or three suicide completions in her old school, which doesn’t speak well for us as society as a whole,” said Dean Azule, coordinator of both Native American Student Support Services and the Healing Feathers project.
The program, however, has taken a different spin on the subject. Azule and members emphasize the gift of life and the joy that comes with being alive.
“In our Indian culture, you have to have balance; it can’t be all just mental,” Azule said. “Even with all the hurt in the world you have to have some humor—it can’t be all serious.”
For this reason, on Oct. 24 Healing Feathers will hold its annual Fun Walk, in which any student or member of the public can join in an informative open house and then a short walk with a $5 lunch afterward. There are two possible routes, both of which begin at the Native American Student and Community Center. The first includes a trip to the waterfront that circles back through the Park Blocks. The second includes a trip to Oregon Health and Science University, where walkers will receive a brief lecture from qualified specialists.
“Anybody that wants to get out for a breath of fresh air should come out; anybody that wants to, basically, just do this in memory of somebody, or anybody that just wants to get out there and get their adrenaline going,” Azule said. “Come out with what you have left in life, come out and share that—it’s open to anybody and everybody.”
Katie Gargan, a senior majoring in social science and minoring in Indigenous Nations Studies, believes in the importance of the program and the Fun Walk.
“I think it’s really important for people to know that we’re around as a tool,” Gargan said. “The goal is to help keep students stay active both mentally and physically. The idea of doing the Fun Walk—it kind of takes up both aspects at the same time.”
Healing Feathers began through a grant awarded for suicide prevention seven years ago.
It focuses on outreach among youth and utilizes paid students to help in those endeavors. The Fun Walk spawned from a similar walk Azule had witnessed and has been a tradition for six years. Participation in Healing Feathers, according to Azule, hits close to home not only for him but for the students involved, as well.
“I think in Healing Feathers, a majority of our students have been participating with it because they have been touched by suicide either personally or they were survivors or knew people,” Azule said. “Their families have been suicide survivors: a sister, a cousin, a relative, a parent who has committed suicide. I think that’s one of the driving forces of why students have become involved, so in that respect there is a personal spot in there.”
Layla Woelfle, a sophomore double majoring in social science and art history and minoring in Native American Studies, explained the role Healing Feathers has played among PSU students.
“I think that one of the things that’s really tough for kids is that they’re leaving home for the first time and this is a new experience—you’re meeting new people, and you’ve got this whole big thing in front of you and if things don’t happen the way you envision them in your head, sometimes things can go badly,” Woelfle said. “I think Healing Feathers specifically helps being able to handle those pressures. With all the societal and school pressures this really is a safe place.”
Throughout the event, Healing Fathers hopes to share cultural aspects with the public, including community and food.
“Part of our Indian culture is: Whenever you invite people to your house, historically they did not have a lot to offer, but one thing that you did try to do you is you made sure that people were fed,” Azule said. “When we have our workshops we provide food. It’s just that balance. We’re going to be helping you at Healing Feathers to get this mental, emotional and physical balance.”
Healing Feathers plans to hold many awareness events throughout the year, including Zumba classes in November, hosted dinners, guest speakers and a relational abuse prevention workshop on Valentine’s Day.
“I hope people gain more awareness about the Healing Feathers and even find out that Healing Feathers exists,” Azule said. “I hope people take the time for inquiry—if they are there, if they’re aware of somebody in need of help—they can ask how they can contact us.”