Archived 02/02/2017

The 2014 SAMHSA Native Youth Conference that took place last November in National Harbor, MD highlighted the perspectives and solutions of youth and honored culture as a central solution to Native American behavioral health problems.

The three-day discussion launched with a drum ceremony celebrating Native American heritage. The youth filled the ballroom with eager energy to share stories from their communities. Federal leaders – including Senator Tester (D-MT), Former Senator Dorgan (D-ND), and SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde, J.D. –  and adults from tribal communities listened, while Native young adults talked about behavioral health issues such as teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, tobacco, inter-generational abuse, and bullying.

Sponsored by SAMHSA’s Centers and offices, and coordinated by the Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy, the conference included youth-focused empowerment workshops, a cultural Pow-Wow, youth/federal panel discussions, exciting performances, highlights on SAMHSA tribal grantees who have developed best and promising practices, and visits to the White House and the National Museum of the American Indian. The conference provided youth with the opportunity to meet and engage with dedicated people from all over the country who are focused on improving the lives of Native American youth.

“We were introduced to all of the other Native Youth who were attending the conference. We were broken into smaller groups, what we at the conference called a nation or clan system,” explained Coloradas Mangas, one of the youth participants. “One dance that was interesting to partake in was the Oklahoma Stomp Dance. This Dance is performed by various tribes in Oklahoma. It is danced counterclockwise and around a small fire. The significance of the Stomp dance is to keep all things in balance.” Cultural performances like this created a unique shared experience where attendees would understand and openly discuss behavioral health concerns and strategies to support healthy lifestyles.

Youth teams play-acted skits with themes such as how boredom feeds into drinking alcohol and having sex; how unplanned pregnancy can curtail plans for college and trap a young person in a situation of poverty; and how difficult it can be to stop cycles of domestic violence and child abuse in families. The dramatizations also touched on the desire for the community off reservation to better understand and accept Native life and culture.

“I went to Washington D.C. to the SAMHSA Native Youth Conference because of a grant given to Fresno American Indian Health Project called the Systems of Care. I learned that one person can make a change in the world, no matter how old or what race you are; everyone has a voice in the community. At the end of the conference I realized that I am not alone and that each day that goes by, I should be proud to be a Native American and that I am a leader!” – Alicia F., from FAIHP Drum Beats, December 2014

I am Indian (“IAMNDN”)

The representatives from the Comanche tribe who attended the conference are a sub-recipient of a SAMHSA grant awarded to the Oklahoma City Area Inter-tribal Health Board (OCAITHB).

The Comanche community is doing something innovative to stop unhealthy cycles.  Ronnie Wahkinney, who manages the OCAITHB grant, said that they have three or four bars on reservation, but only one convenience store and even fewer places for youth to come together. Part of the lure of drinking for kids in this community is that they are bored and have no place to go. To that end, Wahkinney and his colleague Raquel Ramos started a culturally specific club in the public school that the Native youth attend. The club not only provides healthy activities for the students, but also promotes the Native culture and language.

Mr. Wahkinney wanted to do more. Grant funds were used to support a competition where Native youth competed to have their artwork on school supplies, including notebooks. The inside cover contains messages about substance abuse and prevention. Pre and post evaluations are given to assess the effectiveness. With the youth seeing these messages every day, some are taking hold.

“When other students see the notebooks and folders, they say, “A kid did that and they’re Native? I want to make the same thing. I want to be somebody,”” Olivia Komahcheet explained. Olivia is one of the first youth to have her artwork on the cover of school supplies, and she also attended the conference.

The theme of the products is “IAMNDN” (pronounced “I am Indian”), and the “NDN” ending stands for Native Drug-free Nations. This concept is becoming so popular that the Comanche tribe has received requests from other tribal communities around the country to ship some of the prevention school supplies.

The team behind IAMNDN recognizes the significant impact that empowered youth can have – with each other and the broader community as well. They plan to obtain Gopro cameras to give young people the opportunity to document and share some of their life experiences on and off reservation. There are also plans to have youth-run social media pages and discussions.

Higher Prevalence of Substance Abuse

The conference acknowledged the disproportionate prevalence of health problems – including substance use – in Native communities.

SAMHSA’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicates that American Indians or Alaska Natives are more likely than people of other ethnic backgrounds to need substance use treatment (17.5 vs. 9.3 percent). This population is more likely to receive alcohol treatment than illicit drug use treatment.

For American Indian or Alaska Native adolescents, behavioral health concerns are significant. According to the 2011 NSDUH Report: Substance Use among American Indian or Alaska Native Adolescents, compared to the national average, Native youth had higher cigarette use (16.8 vs.10.2 percent), marijuana use (13.8 vs. 6.9 percent), and nonmedical use of prescription drugs (6.1 vs. 3.3 percent). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen birth rates declined for all races except for American Indian and Alaska Natives where births are nearly twice as high as the white teen birth rate.

The data underscore the need for early intervention and prevention – especially with American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

SAMHSA’s Efforts

Image of Jeri Brunoe, Coloradas Mangas and Mirtha Beadle at SAMHSA's 2014 Native Youth Conference

Image of Jeri Brunoe, Coloradas Mangas and Mirtha Beadle at SAMHSA’s 2014 Native Youth Conference

The Native Youth Conference was one of the first activities supported by SAMHSA’s new Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy. The conference was specifically designed to increase awareness about behavioral health and build the skills of Native youth; honor the youth perspective and provide an opportunity for them to share; provide an opportunity for Native youth to participate in the national dialogue about behavioral health; create materials on substance misuse and suicide prevention for Native youth; and promote best and promising practices developed by SAMHSA tribal grantees.

“The young people brought energy and enthusiasm to the Native Youth Conference,” said Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy Director Mirtha Beadle. “Their contributions have greatly enriched our work at SAMHSA.”

Resources

Related SAMHSA Blogs

On SAMHSA’s YouTube Channel