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Chee Chee: A Study of Aboriginal Suicide

by Alvin Evans

Ojibwe-Algonquin artist Benjamin Chee Chee committed suicide in 1977, just as he was about to achieve international stardom. Author Alvin Evans, a psychotherapist and an expert in suicide, believes that Chee Chee’s death was a result of what he calls “white society’s” treatment of native people. Unfortunately, both his thesis and the book’s execution – wherein he attempts to use Chee Chee’s life to illustrate his research about suicide among native youth – are flawed.

The book provides important information about the personalities of those susceptible to depression and the risk factors that can lead to suicide, as well as spot-on observations about the low self-esteem of alcoholics and other addicts. Some of this material – especially the information on self-hate – is clearly important to, and illustrated by, Chee Chee’s life story. But the book’s examination of residential schools, high rates of failure among natives in the education system, and an epidemic of youth suicide on Manitoulin Island in the 1970s simply have nothing to do with Chee Chee. He was born in Northern Ontario and did not attend residential school (although he was sent to a reformatory school at age 12). And although there is evidence that attendance at residential school can lead to problems in later generations, Evans never tells us whether Chee Chee’s parents attended the schools. Using Chee Chee’s life to frame a discussion on youth suicide is also a bit of a stretch, considering that Chee Chee hanged himself at 32.

Although Chee Chee experienced brutal racism, it is also true that he owed his artistic career to the assistance of non-native friends and supporters. Evans wants non-native Canadians to accept full responsibility for native suicides. He clearly does not expect aboriginal people to take responsibility for themselves, even though the concept of personal responsibility is mentioned on three separate occasions in the book and is also a cornerstone of aboriginal belief. The truth is, “white society” didn’t kill Chee Chee – Chee Chee did.