Substance-abuse program draws on First Nations’ core values

Sherry Letendre is happy to see the difference a drug-and alcohol-awareness program is making in her First Nation community west of Edmonton.

“A grandmother, she came up to me and she said, ‘You must be doing something right in that program,’ ” Letendre said.

“She said this little child came up to her and acknowledged her and greeted her using a kinship term. And that’s one of the things we’re teaching the kids.

” After a successful three-year trial, the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation’s customized substanceabuse program has become a permanent part of the community’s school system. Its aim is to help young people develop life skills and cultural awareness.

Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation is made up of four reserves near Edmonton, Whitecourt and Hinton.

The program, developed by the First Nation and the University of Alberta, was created to curb a high prevalence of substance abuse and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It is called Nimi Icinohabi, which means “Look after your life” in the traditional Stoney language.

After a successful trial and evaluation, the First Nation decided to take over funding the project and continue teaching its modules.

Students in Grades 3 to 5 learn about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. They learn how to say “No,” and about social skills that can help them make good choices. The program is repeated for students in Grades 6 to 8. This year, it is also being used in schools at Hobbema, south of Edmonton.

The lessons are tailored to aboriginal values, beliefs and customs. A module on tobacco explains the difference between good tobacco and poison tobacco. A self-esteem module teaches an understanding of the inner spirit.

A Nimi Icinohabi facilitator and research assistant for the Nakota Heritage Project in the First Nation’s education department, Letendre said it’s up to all community members to pass on knowledge to younger generations.

“The responsibility is with everyone of us to continue that teaching of who we are.

” Liz Letendre, Nakota Sioux director of education, said using traditional language and heritage in education is ongoing.

“A lot of the elders over time have come and sat and met and looked at what is important for our children, to ensure a lot of our values and customs are a part of the school. In this past while, in the papers and the news, there’s always this talk about First Nations having a lot of problems with prescription drugs and alcohol and illegal drugs. So this project helped us to use some of those values that need to guide the children to become strong First Nations people.

” Lola Baydala, an associate professor of pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, and colleague Fay Fletcher, an associate professor in the Faculty of Extension, have led the project for the past three years.

Baydala was thrilled when she learned the community had decided to build the program into its regular curriculum.

“I think that’s the ultimate goal of research,” Baydala said.

Her involvement with the project began after Alexis Nakota elders and leaders asked for her help. She based her work on an effective program developed by Dr. Gilbert Botvin from the Cornell University Centre for Prevention Research, but adapted it, with help from community leaders, to include art, cultural ceremonies, kinship terms and beliefs.

A strong sense of self can help young people avoid falling into substance abuse, Baydala said. “We don’t expect to see a decrease in statistics for probably a few years, but the first thing that happens when you implement substance abuse prevention programs is you’ll see a shift in children’s awareness and attitudes toward substance use.

“We have been able to show changes in children’s knowledge and attitudes toward substance use, and also a change in their knowledge of how to use what are called resistance skills. That is, how to say ‘no’ to peer pressure.” © Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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