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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 12, 2003 - Issue 91


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Indian, and Drug-free

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald

RED LAKE, Minn. - Social workers here are turning to ancient culture to help fight a modern scourge.

National reports say American Indians have the highest rate among U.S. ethnic groups of problems related to alcohol and drug abuse. The Anishinaabeg on the Red Lake Reservation in north-central Minnesota have not escaped the problem. But the reservation's emphasis on prevention seems to be working, counselors say.

The Indian and Drug Free Prevention program on the reservation has two approaches. First, counselors use common activities such as fishing derbies, roller skating, movies, golf and trips to the water park in Thief River Falls to get time with the students.

"If we can provide activities for two to four hours, that is time they are not out raising heck or using alcohol and drugs," said Ron Lussier, counselor and prevention specialist for the program.

They also use cultural activities such as sugaring (gathering sugar from trees for maple syrup), blueberry harvesting and fasting ceremonies as a way to instill the positive aspects of the culture.

Get them hooked
The prevention program uses the community's love for basketball to entice young people into the program. It sponsors trips to tournaments in places such as Denver, Minot or Mahnomen, Minn. The next trip planned is for Phoenix, Ariz. The young people raise money for the trip and the prevention program also will help them.

The program also helps get youth hooked on fishing. One of the fall fishing tournaments held at Fullers Lake, Minn., near Red Lake, is called "Take a Kid Fishing." It is a parent and child activity, so in order for a child to be eligible, a parent must participate. One hundred to 200 children usually participate.

They also sponsor two or three ice fishing tournaments in the winter, although they don't keep the fish in the "Big Lake," Red Lake, because they are helping to restore and refresh the walleye there.

Cultural events
Some of the children are looking for another way, counselors say. They are interested in the culture and traditions of the tribe.

The prevention program sponsors traditional sugaring and blueberry gathering events. During those events, the elders talk about the traditions and culture. They tell the children of a different and better way to live.

In the spring and fall, Lussier said, they sponsor a program where the young people are taught about fasting, praying and giving back to the earth.

Lussier, like his father Adam, is responsible for this activity. His father also was an alcohol counselor for the tribe.

"My father did this fasting event for young people as long as I can remember. He died five years ago. He started helping his father with the fasting when he was about 9 years old."

The Red Lake reservation sits in the middle of heavy forest and lush wetlands. Lussier takes the young people in "heavy-duty" trucks into the forest for this cultural experience.

After they reach the appointed place, the students build platforms in the middle of this dense forest, where they will sit for about two days. They make the platforms from wood taken from the area. They tie the logs together, using no nails. Then they are placed in separate spots so they are alone among the trees on the platform they built.

Then they fast. They don't eat or drink water for about two days. Their purpose is to observe and watch.

Listen to the wind, see the stars, watch the insects and acknowledge all that you see, the elders tell them.

Lussier said a lot of the kids have taken their environment for granted. It is a good time for them to think about life.

It gets dark at night. They hear sounds that might be bears, common to this forested area. Lussier once had an experience with a bear while fasting. The bear approached him making huffing sounds. He offered the bear tobacco. It sniffed his hand, then moved away. It then went to each student and acknowledged them. It was a good sign.

"We know the bears. They are our ancestral family," he said.

When their fast is finished, they are taken to a sweat lodge, where they talk about everything they saw.

Making progress
Red Lake is one of the many reservations in this region where alcohol and drug abuse is part of the daily life.

"We grew up with using alcohol. It was the thing to do. It was like eating," said Lussier.

"Not that many years ago, people would park in downtown Red Lake during the day and drink beer," Lussier said. "Today, you don't see that happening. Not too long ago, if you saw a light on late at night, that meant a party. It doesn't mean that today," he said.

Prevention counselors such as Lussier and Keith Defoe have seen some slow change over the past 10 years. They attribute some of these changes to the tribe's prevention programs that are aimed at young people.

There are more than 1,600 young people in school on the reservation. The students who come to the program are referred by one of the four schools on the reservation or by the court systems. They have referrals as young as 10 years old.

It has been slow, but counselors say they can see changes in the number of students who are referred to the program.

They see more and more adults who are now alcohol free, but it is the young people they are trying to reach. What they try to do is to plant positive and life-affirming thoughts in the young people's minds something they will remember when they are faced with tough choices, Lussier said.

Red Lake Indian Reservation, Minnesota Map

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