Peer mentoring program aims to prevent substance abuse and keep kids in touch with tribal heritage

May 17, 2013

Rapper Chief Swagg poses for a photo with students on the Wind River Indian Reservation at the ESCAPE kick-off concert. ESCAPE is a program of the Eastern Shoshone Department of Juvenile Services, and it works to train students to educate their peers about making healthy choices.

Substance abuse is a concern for most school districts across the country, but on the Wind River Indian Reservation, it’s a red flag for especially high crime and suicide rates. Tribes have been trying – with mixed success – to keep kids from abusing alcohol and tobacco… But a new program from the Eastern Shoshone Department of Juvenile Services is working to train a league of student mentors to help their peers avoid risky behaviors. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez filed this report.

REINETTTE TENDORE: We have (zip) Right here we have a bottle of rat poison, and, uh, we have insecticide.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Reinette Tendore is rifling through a bag of props she uses to teach elementary and middle school kids about the contents of commercial cigarettes and what they can do to your lungs. She pulls out some squishy lung replicas. She starts out with the smooth, pink healthy one… but she says kids always react to the lumpy, blackened, cancerous lung.

TENDORE: Their first thing is, “Ew, yuck!” Or, a lot of kids say, “that’s my mom’s lung!” Or “that’s my dad’s lung!”

MARTINEZ: Tendore works with for the Shoshone and Arapaho Tobacco Prevention Program, just one prevention group that’s partnering with a new inter-tribal program called Eastern Shoshone Cross Age Peer Education – or ESCAPE. Using federal grant funding, the Eastern Shoshone Department of Juvenile Services is developing ESCAPE to be a peer-mentorship program. Students will be trained to lead presentations about certain health and social issues, and then they’ll mentor younger kids.

Juvenile Services Director Clarence Thomas says the tribes have tried preventive education before, but that this stands to be more effective.

CLARENCE THOMAS: And the youth are the only individuals who can totally make change. With cross-age peer mentoring, meaning a 12th grader can go down to a 5th grader, a 5th grader can go down to a kindergartner, we can start seeing a positive movement, positive change.

MARTINEZ: ESCAPE is recruiting 11 to 18 year olds to learn about drug and bullying prevention, the dangers of alcohol, and the importance of good nutrition. Tribal elders and organizations – including public health, suicide and sexual assault prevention programs – are meeting with them for regular trainings.

(Music,  “Chief Swagg...”)

MARTINEZ: The Department of Juvenile Services began drumming up interest among students at a huge ESCAPE kick-off party this school year. National speakers talked about avoiding substance abuse, and the importance of tribal identity. Rapper Chief Swagg, a member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, performed at the kick off.

(Music: “I’m powwow craving, I ain’t been in a month. Dreaming about Indian tacos, meat pies and stuff. Might meet a lady if I got lady luck. I’m a eagle feather, you’re a feather of a duck…”)

MARTINEZ: Celebrating tribal identity is a huge part of ESCAPE’s mission to encourage kids to make healthy choices. Jay Old Coyote, who works with Reinette Tendore in the smoking prevention program, says a lot of unhealthy habits on the reservation are justified by perverse traditionalism, or a distortion of Indian traditions.

JAY OLD COYOTE: A lot of Native Americans say, “Just because I’m Native American, I need, you know, I’m obligated to smoke.” So we’re trying to change their minds on how to respect tobacco.

MARTINEZ: Old Coyote says he, and the student mentors he trains, will be teaching students about the differences between natural tobacco and commercial cigarettes, and where tobacco fits in with tribal heritage.

OLD COYOTE: Back in the early stages of Native American history, tobacco was one of the main ingredients of how to communicate with The Creator. And, you know, it was a sign of peace.

MARTINEZ: Alcohol and drugs are a huge concern on the reservation. According to the most recent Wyoming Prevention Needs Assessment, 20 percent of high school seniors on the Wind River Reservation said they’d been to six-to-nine events with large amounts of alcohol in the past year. Eighteen percent said they’d been to 10 or more.

Sunny Goggles is the program coordinator for the Shoshone Arapaho Tribal Substance Abuse Court. She gathers statistics like these for area prevention programs. Goggles says she thinks mentorship will be more effective than lectures in preventing alcohol abuse in young people, because they’re social creatures.

GOGGLES: People trying to work on their substance abuse issues here in the community, they struggle because they have great support to get them drunk. They have great support to use. They have great support for them to get involved in negativity.

MARTINEZ: Goggles is 36, and she says many of her peers are already dying from liver complications. And since young people make up half of the population on the Wind River Reservation, she says focusing on positively empowering students is just a good use of resources.

Seventeen-year-old Latia Tendore is training to be an ESCAPE mentor. She shares a lot of the same concerns.

LATIA TENDORE: I’ve seen kids get drunk. They start fighting. And they start saying stuff to people that they love dearly. And if, like, they smoke, and they’re gonna go home and take it back to their siblings. And their siblings are gonna grow up… Because, everybody knows that little kids wanna be just like you.

MARTINEZ: Latia has positive role models in her life – including her Auntie Reinette, who’s works for the smoking prevention program – but Latia understands what a lot of her peers are going through. She says a kids confide in her with their problems already, even when she doesn’t ask.

Thirty-seven students have begun ESCAPE mentor training. They’ll begin leading presentations and working with kids in the fall. Educators say they’re excited to see what a peer-focused program can offer, and hope it will be an effective tool in the prevention toolbox.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.