Wind River Tribal Youth Program blends prevention, treatment and tribal tradition

Wind River Tribal Youth Program blends prevention, treatment and tribal tradition

'I feel like I'm mentally reborn'

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ETHETE — The heat starts dry, a warming blush on the skin over the cool air wafting in from the open door. The rocks, cooked outside on a fire, turn from gray stone to red and then the deceptive white of blistering heat. They are shoveled and piled in the center of the dome, burning the comforting orange of a campfire, then fading to black.

The smell of cedar swirls in the air, as people wave it over their bodies, smudging themselves, clearing their minds before reminding themselves they are about to participate in something sacred.

The door shuts. Darkness engulfs. The heat thickens. It fills the dark so completely it seems to radiate from your own body.

Water sizzles as it is poured over the rocks, and soon each breath is steamy.

The heat swells until it takes a shape you can almost chew. It tastes of dirt and rock and water and salt from your sweat. Breathing feels like biting into a large cotton ball.

A sweat is about sacrifice, said George Leonard, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It is about giving oneself over completely to the Grandfathers. It is about purification, pushing out the toxins, the vices and the weakness.

The weekly community sweat lodge

ceremony in Ethete is a core part of the Wind River Tribal Youth Program, which tackles issues ranging from truancy and bullying to suicide and drug addiction in kids and adults.

The program’s effort to blend prevention, treatment and tribal tradition recently garnered national recognition.

‘Healing village’

In February, the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recognized the Wind River Tribal Youth Program with its Voices of Prevention Award. It was one of five prevention and substance abuse programs in the country to earn such status, and the only one that was reservation-based, said Wilma Pinnock, public health advisor for the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

“It’s a healing village for all community members,” she said.

Pinnock hopes other reservation programs will study the Wind River program in creating their own prevention plans.

Part of what made the Wind River program stand out was its diversity in treatment, but also its support from and involvement of tribal elders, she said.

“They ground us, they know where our culture and identity is,” said Leonard, a suicide prevention coordinator in the program.

Too often Leonard sees kids who want to be inner-city gangsters, wear gang colors, fight, steal and use drugs. That’s not who they are.

“They need to find a piece of their identity as Native Americans,” Leonard said. “They need an intervention in a cultural sense.”

Youth on the reservation today face challenges the elders didn’t growing up, said Crawford White Sr., a member of the council of elders. There are few jobs or opportunities for recreation, he said. There are more types of drugs and easier access to them.

“There is a lot of violence out there because of drugs and alcohol,” he said.

The program not only provides treatment for addictions and behavioral issues, it is a productive outlet for kids, a healthy hangout spot and a chance to reconnect with American Indian culture through activities like the weekly sweat, White said. American Indian adults serve as role models and understand what the kids are facing.

“It’s hard to hold onto two worlds,” White said.

The youth program tries to bridge those two worlds, reminding kids where they came from while showing them the possibilities for the future, such as college.

The program is crucial to the overall health of the reservation, White said. It changes lives. But it’s not enough. It needs more funding and it needs to grow, he said.

“When I think about these kids, they are our future,” he said. “Somehow, someway, we need to turn them around because where they are headed — it don’t look good.”

Someone always listens

The Wind River Tribal Youth Program started in 1999 as a youth probation program, said Liz Salway-Littlecreek, the juvenile re-entry and Reservations Against Meth coordinator.

It grew to encompass prevention work and serve all ages. Staff members offer group and individual counseling, present educational programs and take on-call shifts so someone is available 24 hours a day.

The program has 10 staff members — nine full-time and one part-time. Many salaries are funded through grants. The rest of the money comes from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

Some kids are forced into the program as part of a treatment plan or probation stipulation. Some kids are in foster care. They might be runaways, or skip school too often, or have been arrested for drugs and alcohol. Others are sent by family members. And some choose to come, finding comfort in a place where there is always someone who listens.

Lachelle Charley, 14, was an unapologetic school bully. Two years ago she came to the tribal youth program after running away and getting into trouble for fighting one too many times. She thought the program would be dumb and she would sit and fake a smile until they let her go.

At some point she started talking — about her day at school, about things that made her mad.

Someone listened. As she talked, the anger dissipated a little.

Then she went into the sweat lodge.

“I prayed and I prayed,” she said. “It gets hotter and hotter, and it takes out all the stress.”

Some people at Wyoming Indian Middle School might still say she’s a bully, but others might call her a class clown, or even a teacher’s pet, she said.

Now she regularly comes back, voluntarily, to sweat out the anger.

Talking circles

As important to the program as the sweat lodge is, the weekly talking circles are equally critical. Each week girls from group homes gather to talk about the mundane — their day at school, how they feel — and the serious — rape, molestation, suicide.

The rules of the circle are simple. Talk only when you hold the feather. No looking directly at the speaker. Not touching, even for comfort. No interjecting, no matter what the speaker says. There are no bad people in the circle, only bad choices.

First, the girls smudge themselves with smoke from burning sweetgrass to clear their minds and open their hearts.

Then they speak. Salway-Little-creek leads the circle. For at least one round, she introduces the topic.

Everyone must talk.

“I know you all have something to talk about because you are all somewhere you don’t want to be,” Salway-Littlecreek said during a recent gathering. “If you keep it bottled up, it will hurt your heart.”

Most of the girls, whose names are kept confidential, are temporary residents at a nearby group home. They feel trapped. They talk about “getting out.”

One girl ran away for the first time three years ago to be with a boy.

Another talked about feeling so angry over even the smallest things, she lashed out with her fists. She had been at the group home for 100 days. Another talked about her drug abuse and drinking. She’d been at the home 108 days — exactly, she said.

The talking circles have been in use for about five years. Salway-Littlecreek said that the youths’ revelations over the years have led to three federal indictments.

Salway-Littlecreek always goes with the girls to tell parents or guardians about the crimes or abuse she’s learned about in talking circles.

Salway-Littlecreek understands their pains and concerns. The reason why the kids can open up is because their leaders know where they are coming from.

“I’ve held a feather, and I’ve cried because this was me when I was young,” Salway-Littlecreek said.

She grew up in orphanages and foster care, where she was sexually molested. She made bad choices and found herself pregnant at 14. Then she changed her life.

“Some of it’s hard truth,” she said, “but they need to hear it.”

Anecdotal evidence

There isn’t data on the success rate of the tribal youth program, said Telano Groesbeck, the HIV/AIDS coordinator with the program.

But he and other staff members believe the program works.

Kids who go through the treatment raise their grades and some advance to college. One who came in arms crossed, eyes on the ground, left the program offering hugs, handshakes and making eye contact.

“One of the major things is to get the respect back — toward our elders and toward each other and toward ourselves,” Groesbeck said.

That’s where the sweat lodge helps. Each week, for the past four years, about 30 people come, by choice, to sweat.

“When you come in here, it gives you a chance to be open,” Groesbeck said, standing outside the lodge near glowing rocks heating for a Tuesday night ceremony.

Constance Hebah, 19, of Ethete, has attended the community sweats for three years.

She once partied every weekend, drinking and smoking marijuana, and sometimes going on benders in which she was wasted for a week straight. After she was arrested, she came to the sweat lodge.

“I came here to pray for my family and myself,” she said.

Inside the lodge, as the heat intensifies, so does the singing. Underneath the hums and wails are the mumbles of indistinguishable prayers. “Please.” “Help.”

Between each of the four rounds, as the heat dwindles, people share stories.

They ask for prayers for loved ones in the hospital or struggling against addiction. They tell their own stories of triumph, how long they’ve been sober, or of going back to school.

They laugh and they cry and they find strength.

When Hebah leaves, the cravings are gone — at least for awhile. She wouldn’t say she was cured, but her life was back on track. She plans to graduate and wants attend college for business or accounting, or maybe enroll in a Job Corps program or a school for culinary arts. Three years ago she didn’t think that far into the future, just the next day.

“I feel,” she said, “like I’m mentally reborn.”

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