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Native Americans have 'One Sky' approach
to prevention

We often hear about the great toll substance abuse has taken in Native American
communities, yet we hear little about the innovative things being done to combat these problems. Typically, American Indian youth begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol between the ages of 10-13, but some individuals report trying drugs or alcohol as early as five or six years of age. This tendency toward childhood experimentation has spawned many creative prevention efforts that incorporate Native American values and traditions.

Within the blanket term of "American Indian" or "Native American" are 562 federally recognized tribes that range in membership from less than 100 to more than 350,000. Only about one-third of this population live on reservations and tribal trust lands. Most Native Americans (63 percent) live in urban areas.

While the needs and traditions of tribes may vary dramatically, American Indians are all under "one sky," according to founders of One Sky Center, a new national resource center and the first to serve Indians from all U.S. tribes and urban communities. Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, One Sky Center was created to be the repository of successful and culturally appropriate Native American prevention and treatment programs. While One Sky doesn't provide direct services, it examines each program to determine what is working well. It then incorporates this information into a database to be shared among tribes. One Sky soon plans to develop its own resources and provide training and presentations throughout the country.

"I believe that every community has its problems," said Elizabeth Hawkins, a Behavioral Health Specialist at One Sky Center, "but there are many dedicated people doing amazing work every single day. People started contacting us immediately to request information or tell us what they are doing. One woman lived in a house with no running water, yet she and others were pulling off this incredible prevention program. We're here to support that kind of work and connect people."

One prevention project, "Journeys of the Circle," grew from a custom in Northwest coastal tribes where young people who commit to being clean and sober for one year form a "canoe family." Throughout the year, they participate in talking circles with elders, help construct large ocean-going canoes, and learn to navigate the waters of Puget Sound, where they visit other tribes in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest to take part in their rituals and ceremonies. Using this canoe journey as a metaphor, researchers from the University of Washington developed a prevention curriculum for urban Native American teens at risk for alcohol and drug problems. The eight-lesson course is called "Canoe Journey, Life's Journey" and teaches youth how to deal with life challenges by mastering individual skills and working as a team to complete their "journey" safely.

To extend the scope and depth of its resources, One Sky Center has partnered with several organizations that are seen as leaders in substance abuse prevention and treatment in Native American communities.

One of these is the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (NIYLP) based in Gallup, N.M., that teaches how service is part of one's community responsibility. In an article at NIYLP's Web site, Executive Director McClellan Hall explains that this approach is in alignment with the Cherokee tradition of Gadugi--a call to bring people together to help one another.

Because NIYLP focuses on values common to all Native Americans, such as family, service, respect, and spiritual awareness, its programs have been successful with many different tribes. At one NIYLP camp, students worked together to help rebuild a 250-year-old adobe church. At another, they repaired trails and weeded Anasazi ruins for the National Park Service. "Learning through providing service to others can be a significant step toward breaking the cycle of dependence," stated Hall.

"Culture as prevention" is also a tenet of "Wellbriety"--a sobriety movement launched by White Bison, Inc., another One Sky partner. White Bison has woven the Twelve Step recovery model in with various traditions and teachings such as the Medicine Wheel to create a "healing forest," a model for community and organizational change.

Individually, each of these programs and organizations is doing remarkable things to protect young Native Americans from the devastating effects of substance abuse.

For more information on One Sky Center, or for links to other programs and resources, go to or call 503-494-3703. 

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