Social workers turn to ancient culture to prevent drug abuse

Associated Press

RED LAKE, Minn. -- Through ancient traditions, including fasting, social workers here hope to lead American Indian youths away from the too-common problems of drug and alcohol abuse on the reservations.

The Anishinaabeg on the Red Lake Reservation in north-central Minnesota have not escaped the problems of chemical abuse, but counselors said the reservation's prevention program seems to be working.

The Indian and Drug Free Prevention program has two approaches. First, counselors use common activities including 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 tap cultural activities including sugaring (gathering sugar from trees for maple syrup), blueberry harvesting and fasting to instill the positive aspects of their culture.

The students who come to the program are sent by one of the four schools on the reservation or by the courts. Children as young as 10 years old have been referred to the program.

In the spring and fall, Lussier said, program instructors teach the young people about fasting, praying and giving back to the earth. He, like his father, is one of the teachers.

"My father did this fasting event for young people as long as I can remember," Lussier said. "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 transports the young people in trucks deep into the forest for the fasting ritual.

Students build wooden platforms in the middle of the forest. They tie together logs found nearby, using no nails. Then the platforms are separated so the youths sit alone among the trees, without food or water, for about two days.

The elders tell them to concentrate on the world around them. Listen to the wind, see the stars, watch the insects and acknowledge all that you see, the elders say.

Lussier said the fasters might hear the sounds of bears, which are common in the forest. He said he has been close to them while fasting.


The bear approached making huffing sounds. He offered the bear tobacco. It sniffed his hand, then moved away. The animal 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, the youths are taken to a sweat lodge, where they talk about everything they saw.

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