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Q & A: Cheyenne Kippenberger talks mental health

Cheyenne Kippenberger, at right, joins other colleagues at a climate conference in Miami earlier this year. (Image via Facebook)

Native Americans have one of the highest suicide rates of any group in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list suicide as the second-leading cause of death for Native people between the ages of 10 and 34. (Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death).

The Seminole Tribe’s Cheyenne Kippenberger, who made mental health issues an anchor of her platform as Miss Indian World, was a guest on Native America Calling’s national radio show Sept. 6 as part of National Suicide Prevention Week, which was observed from Sept. 4 to Sept. 10.

Kippenberger is the communications coordinator for the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) at the Aspen Institute. She spoke with host Shawn Spruce about mental health and Native youth. The following is a part of her conversation with Spruce. It has been edited for length and clarity.

How are young people helping other young people in crises?

If you look at the strength our communities hold, a lot of times it’s really driven by young people in our communities across Indian Country. Some of the efforts that are being made in regards to suicide prevention – creating resources, creating support systems – they are youth led and we see that firsthand at CNAY.

What was the motivation for starting CNAY? How long has it been in existence?

We are super excited that we just celebrated 10 years last year. We were founded by Sen. (Byron) Dorgan, who is a former senator of North Dakota. It was started with suicide prevention in mind. He had seen that there was a need for resources and support within communities. He had a very close relationship with MHA in North Dakota (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation), and with leftover campaign money he started CNAY.

Tell us about some of the programs that work to address mental health issues among young Native people.

If you look at CNAY, we have “Champions for Change,” and we host an annual art competition called “Creative Natives,” which encourages people to submit art pieces. We come into communities and create programs that are more specified for those community needs. We also offer trainings – but most of all, our goal, our mission, is to enhance and empower young people and to build them up in a way that not only makes them ready to take on their lives professionally, educationally, and socially within Indian Country, but also off of their communities – and be able to have confidence as traditional people navigating a modern world.

Do your programs include spirituality when working with Native youth struggling with mental health?

Absolutely. When we think of prevention, what are the main tools we can utilize to address these concerns and issues? We take into account that we are culturally driven people, we are communally driven people, and the vast resources that we can provide in the community is culture – creating a support system that is founded and driven by the very teachings that we are taught as Native people.

Within those spaces our young people can thrive. Not only do they feel safe but also they feel protected and they feel valued. In other spaces that aren’t Native led, we constantly have to validate our identity. We constantly have to validate our very existence, because if you look at what mainstream media portrays us as, it’s extinct people most times. We treat everybody that we have the honor of working with like family. Working with young people is something that should be held in very high regard.

What are Native youth saying about their unique mental health needs?

We have an awesome survey that we were a part of – the “Indigenous Futures Project” – you can access those results on our website at There was a portion that covered mental health and our young people were sharing their concerns. It was probably the first time these perspectives were put at the forefront of such research.

It was shared that suicide prevention is something that is a really big concern. Mental health resources – taking into consideration cultural competency, historical competency in professional care – were something that was needed in tribal communities. Are these communities rural? Are they urban? Is there a lack of financial support? Is there a lack of mental health professionals that aren’t able to make it to those communities? The survey was great in being able to take a deeper dive into that and understanding Native youth needs that should be prioritized.

Are you seeing meaningful progress?

As someone not only on the team with CNAY, but also having served in the capacity of a youth ambassador, I can say firsthand the impact that it has had on my life – the emotional, spiritual support that was provided from the center was monumental. You see it firsthand with the youth that we get to work with. For there to be change in our communities, there need to be spaces for young people’s voices to be heard and valued. Our young people are our future. They’re our future council members, our future doctors, our future teachers and educators.

Editor’s note: “988” has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (now known as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) and is now active across the U.S. When people call, text, or chat “988,” they will be connected to trained counselors that are part of the network.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at