Tribes Weave Visions for Healthy Future
By Meredith Hogan Pond
The third annual "National Behavioral Health Conference
on Alcohol, Substance Abuse and Mental Health: Weaving
Visions for a Healthy Future" held in San Diego,
CA, in June drew more than 500 American Indian and Alaska
Native substance abuse treatment and mental health practitioners,
tribal representatives, traditional healers, health care
providers, state program directors, consumers, and their
Co-sponsored by SAMHSA and the Indian Health Service,
the conference was held to develop recommendations, stimulate
discussion, and identify opportunities for collaboration
and coordination of alcohol and substance abuse treatment
and prevention efforts in Indian communities.
The 3-day conference was preceded by a forum on "Best
Practices in Substance Abuse Treatment for American Indians
and Alaska Natives," which highlighted several current
or past SAMHSA grantees.
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT)
sponsored the forum.
Dale Walker, M.D., a member of the Cherokee tribe and
Director of the One Sky Center, emphasized the symbolism
of the conference title. "Weaving our vision is
so important in Indian Country," he said. "It's a bringing together of many different resources and
He explained, "It's like a two gray hills rug.
In other words, the partnership is complementary in its
ability to work together and produce positive results
in the same way that the classic Navajo weave of a two
gray hills rug is complementary in color, style, and
strength. That should be our metaphor as a system of
care reaching out into the Indian community."
The Directors of all three SAMHSA Centers addressed
forum attendees, and SAMHSA Administrator Charles G.
Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W., and Indian Health Service (IHS)
Director Charles W. Grim, D.D.S., M.H.S.A., both addressed
"You are on the cutting edge, on the frontier,"
said CSAT Director H. Westley Clark, M.D., J.D., M.P.H.,
to forum attendees. Dr. Clark acknowledged the current
lack of evidence-based practices that apply to American
Indians and Alaska Natives specifically. "Native
communities need to ensure that they are included in
research studies and clinical trials. Right now, you
can't turn to the academic literature for the answers,"
Dr. Clark added. "The answers are within you."
SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention Director
Beverly Watts Davis told forum attendees that the Agency's
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center for Excellence
is working on an American Indian and Alaska Native initiative
that will focus on FASD in Indian Country.
In addition to recognizing program successes, the conference
also recognized the recent tragedies at the Red Lake
and Standing Rock reservations involving youth suicides. A multi-agency team including representatives from SAMHSA,
IHS, state agencies, and the One Sky Center provided
With special funding provided by SAMHSA through the
One Sky Center, a panel of youth attended the conference
to share their feelings about the crisis.
A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA's Center
for Mental Health Services, told participants, "Suicide
is robbing Native communities of their most valuable
resources: their children and their future."
She acknowledged that a "serious challenge to achieving
our goal is the current disparities of care—too
few providers in remote locations." She also pointed
to a "lack of cultural competency in our programs
and provider training. We don't know enough about Native
cultures and the differences between them," she
At both the forum and the conference, participants not
only described substance abuse prevention and treatment
programs and practices that are working, but also emphasized
the common bonds that Native people share regardless
of tribe. "Indian people don't see treatment and
prevention as different," said Dr. Walker. "They
see them as part of the same holistic system."
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Common themes centered on how traditional Native cultures
enhance substance abuse treatment and prevention; how
important families are in the recovery process; how communities
can heal; and how a vision of success can produce positive
"Alaska Natives are resilient people who take their
resilience into their programs," said Valerie Naquin
of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. "Alaska Natives
have survived thousands of years in some of the worst
weather in the world." In developing Alaska Native
best practices, she said, "We're a lot farther along
than we thought we were. Many of our traditional practices
are Medicaid billable now." These practices include
walking on the tundra, gathering clams by the shoreline,
berry picking, and the traditional steam bath, which
is the Alaska Native version of the sweat lodge.
"Usually for grants you have to put in all the
horrible things," said Ms. Naquin, who helps locate
funding resources for the tribal council. "But we
include stories and poems and describe the strengths
in Alaska Native culture."
Eva Petoskey, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of
Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in Peshawbestown, MI, has
many years of experience in evaluation of substance abuse
and prevention with rural reservation communities in
the Great Lakes area. "Engaging people in evaluation
can be part of community healing," she said. "It's
important to bring people in when you have the opportunity—members
of the community, the tribal council, consumers."
To honor the traditional spiritual basis for change,
Ms. Petoskey starts all her evaluation sessions with
ceremony and prayer. "Prayer is a healing process,"
she said. "Prayer helps with your work because we
are walking with our ancestors, walking in mutual respect."
The best way to formulate outcomes is to start in a
special sacred place," said Ms. Petoskey. "And
it's important to feed people who participate in a focus
group or survey," she added, "then people will
want to be there."
"We know that culture is prevention," said
Don Coyhis, a member of the Mohican tribe and president
of White Bison, Inc., in Colorado Springs, CO. "When
we turn to our Native culture, there are no suicides,
no meth, no alcohol. When we start talking about our
communities as healthy communities with sober leadership,
then our communities are ready to mobilize."
The success of traditional practices in the recovery
process was described by Laverne Alexander of the Tanana
Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, AK. "The Old Minto
Recovery Camp is unique," she said. "Because
entire families come together for the healing of addiction."
Old Minto's goal is to bring people back to their culture.
"The camp brings us back to our roots, brings us
back together as a community, where we started,"
she said. "The emphasis is on subsistence living
and gathering in traditional ways."
Another successful Native program guided by traditional Native values is Project Venture,
based in Gallup, NM. McClellan Hall is executive director
of Project Venture's National Indian Youth Leadership
Project. The national Model Program develops healthy
and resilient youth and community through leadership,
service, and challenge. Activities focus on developing
team building, problem solving, and cooperation skills
through the use of experiential games and outdoor adventures including
"In order to be strong in your life, you need a
vision of success. You have to be able to see it to believe
it," said Iris Heavyrunner, M.S.W., a member of
the Blackfeet tribe and a Ph.D. candidate in social work
at the University of Minnesota. "Once you have a
vision, you have a clear expectation of yourself. Students
who graduated from college, for example, told me they
could see themselves walking across the stage and reaching
their hand out for their diploma. That's how clear their
vision was. A vision is powerful."
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