“Native youth have the ability to lift our people up and help strive for a better future through perseverance.”
(Coloradas Mangas, Chiricahua Apache)
In Alaska, I’ve worked with youth across our culturally diverse and geographically spread-out state. Together, we put forth positive efforts to combat youth initiation of tobacco, and other prevention initiatives. Perhaps some of our approaches are similar for those in other tribal states and communities.
In the 49th state, there is a disparity of tobacco use among Alaska Native people and Alaska Native youth. Naturally, it is important to empower tribal youth in prevention and advocacy efforts. The 2015 Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey reports that the “Percentage of High School Students Who Ever Tried Cigarette Smoking (even one or two puffs)” is 52.0% for Alaska Native students compared to Hispanic students at 39.3% and White students at 22.2%.
For Alaska high school students who report frequently smoking cigarettes (on 20 or more days during the 30 days before the survey), Alaska Native students report use nearly four times more than white students. The disparity for current use of smokeless tobacco is nearly the same ratio between demographics.
It takes everyone to counter the tobacco industry and educate on the dangers of tobacco use, and tribal youth are a powerful and necessary ally. Tobacco free Native youth who are subsistence hunters, athletes, dancers and singers, who are working to revitalize their culture in their communities and among their peers, exemplified by a belief many of them hold firm: “tobacco is not our culture.” That message often shared to recruit more youth in tobacco prevention. Tribal youth are their community’s next generation and they can be empowered to shape wellness for their people and focus on the strength and resilience that has kept their people thriving for thousands of years.
“Each tribe is unique, different with its own history, customs, language dialects, belief systems and tribal governments”
(Engaging Tribal Communities-Oklahoma Systems of Care)
It is important to consider cultural strengths when developing projects with tribal youth. Incorporating youth voices is a best practice for all youth-adult partnerships. Therefore, supporting youth to come up with strategies that involve their tribe or community’s history and traditions helps their efforts be relevant, effective and can even strengthen traditions within the youth themselves.
It is powerful for youth to learn and use their cultural values. Blending tobacco prevention messaging and activities with traditions may resonate with community members, and strengthen cultural learning for the teens. For instance, in Alaska, one set of values is Respect for Nature in which the youth can educate on the harms of littering tobacco butts. There is also the Love for Children value, which harkens to respecting young people’s health and exposure to secondhand smoke.
Smoking/tobacco enforcement messaging has been altered to look more culturally relevant in Alaska with positive-sounding wording, and tying in cultural activities such as catching and preparing salmon: “Smoke Fish, Not Tobacco!”
Tobacco prevention “professionals” cannot physically or financially be everywhere in Alaska to guide and support prevention efforts, so youth in rural regions with high tobacco use are poised to be on-the-ground leaders for making a difference, along with local adult support.
Many of the youth engaged with Alaska’s ATCA Youth Leaders (Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance) initially got involved out of concern over the prevalence of use in their communities by family members and peers. Relationships are tight knit in rural, remote communities and these teens have seen the adverse health impacts to many of their relatives and loved ones. Youth can bring education into intergenerational gatherings and celebrations such as potlatches, and even school-based basketball games when everyone gathers in the village.
While working with youth, particularly in culturally diverse and remote areas, it is important to offer opportunities to connect with teens from other areas to broaden their networks, and to offer new and interesting leadership skills/experiences. It’s quite exciting and motivating to travel outside the village and join other teens that are also passionate about healthy communities and lives! Together, they can even discuss what is cultural regarding tobacco use, and what is not.