For the majority of years, Sara Blackdeer has been struggling to cope with the effect of a lifetime of traumas and struggles at home and at school. At age 12, her mother attempted suicide, leading to a decade of efforts to get help for the pain of dealing with her mother’s mental health issues.
“I didn’t seek help when I needed it, and I didn’t understand why,” said Blackdeer, now 36.
Blackdeer started using pills — which helped her begin recovery — but a few years after she graduated from college, her addiction spiraled into addiction to other substances, such as heroin. Blackdeer’s story is common among Native American and Alaska Native women, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But Blackdeer didn’t have to wait until she hit the streets for help.
After graduating from college, Blackdeer worked as a social worker. But in 2011, she received a call from her mother after seeing an ad from a suicide hotline.
“She wanted to know if I could walk her to the bus stop,” Blackdeer said. “She wouldn’t say the words, but I knew she was reaching out for help.”
Blackdeer made it to the bus stop. It was a turning point for her.
“After that, it wasn’t about drugs anymore — I didn’t want to be any of those people anymore,” she said. “I wanted to be around the beautiful people of God and have a better life, because I was going to get that life.”
At that moment, Blackdeer decided to build a musical instrument and pursue her dream. One of the first musicians to help her get started was U.S. National Public Lands Orchestra Founder Patricia Elswick, who said there were many Native people across the country working to break down cultural barriers when it came to mental health.
“For us it was very sacred music, so it became easier for me to talk about my experiences,” said Elswick, who co-founded the orchestra in 1993. “Once Sara started playing, she realized there were thousands of other people who were searching for a similar outlet. There wasn’t another place they could go.”
Blackdeer played classical and folk songs until she got into bluegrass in 2012, where she found inspiration to bring her voice to bring people together. She made instrument donations to homeless shelters and shelters that serve the homeless — and relied on musicians from the orchestras around the country to help her when she needed accompaniment.
“We started giving them opportunities to play, and then we started to love their response,” Elswick said. “That was the moment when our main motive was to help people, but it also had a calming effect on Sara. She felt closer to purpose.”
That was an experience Blackdeer has been able to share with many other Native artists, because the Native American National Music Association has its own network of musicians and plays a crucial role in a young professional’s development.