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'Connect, educate, advocate': Partnership works to curb Navajo veteran suicide

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2018 file photo, Monument Valley is shown in Utah. The Navajo Nation has by far the largest land mass of any Native American tribe in the country. Now, it's boasting the largest enrolled population, too.

The suicide rate for veterans is generally known to be about 50% higher than the rate of the general public. But a study released in May by U.S. Medicine, which serves the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the suicide rates for Native Americans are the highest of any ethnic minority.

Further, it said that from 2004 to 2018, the suicide rate for native veterans increased by 146%.

Now, there could be many reasons behind that, including poverty and systemic inequities. As the study says, Native vets often struggle to find the resources they need.

One organization is looking to change that. Naazbaa is a nonprofit that aims to help veterans of the Navajo Nation, or the Diné as they're traditionally known, and they seek to connect these veterans to resources they might need to navigate civilian life.

The group has seen success across the Navajo Nation from the capital of Window Rock to off-reservation trust lands in New Mexico, and now they're looking to reach out to the Diné community in Las Vegas.

Bernie Tyler is the program lead for Diné Naazbaa Partnership. She sat down with Nevada Public Radio's Indigenous affairs reporter Miles Brady to talk about the organization, what they're doing and how they're tackling the veteran suicide epidemic.

“We try to be impactful where we can make changes in these local Navajo Nation communities,” she said. “We do that by connecting all veterans, their spouses, and caregivers, and then just understanding needs that exist in their world.”

Navajo communities exist throughout Arizona and New Mexico, but there’s a large Diné population in Las Vegas. Though, it’s harder for groups like hers to reach them here.

“I think when they're in bigger, populous areas, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City, they don't know about smaller local programs like ours.”

She said Navajo Nation, the biggest tribe and reservation, faces many rural challenges. Families are without electricity, running water, transportation, “we’re lagging on cell phone towers.”

They operate on a four-step plan.

“Connect, educate, and then we advocate. And our last step of this great model that works is to collaborate. So when we follow those, it allows us to reach out to other partners that we trust.”

Tyler herself is a veteran of the Army. She said she was fortunate to have stayed close to the military, and was able to help other vets in need. 

But suicide remains a significant probem in Navajo Nation, she said. 

“It's really sensitive to discuss. But when you have veterans that are willing to just talk another vet out of those situations or scenarios, that's good. ... Our overall goal, I think at the end of the day, we want to address issues and problems that hinder veterans from getting assistance. Their quality of life is important in all of this, in our mission."

Bernie Tyler, program lead, Diné Naazbaa Partnership

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Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.