E.L.D.E.R.S. Gathering for Native American Youth: Continuing Native American Traditions and Curbing Substance Abuse in Native American Youth

Article excerpt

E.L.D.E.R.S. Gathering for Native American youth: continuing Native American traditions and curbing substance abuse in Native American youth describes the efforts of Native American Elders, traditionalists, and non-native volunteers interested in preserving the culture and traditions of the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), also known as the Iroquois. This event is held every summer at the Ganondagan Historical site located near Victor, in upstate New York. The purpose of this week long gathering is to bring together Native American youth who are interested in learning more about their traditional ways with Native American Elders who practice these traditions. Much of the program's efforts focus on developing the "good mind" of the youth participants so that the youth and Elders are more likely to refrain from substance abuse. Youth participants begin to learn how to incorporate traditional values and beliefs into their lives while also developing leadership skills for use when each returns to their home environment hence, the acronym E.L.D.E.R.S. (Encouraging Leaders Dedicated to Enriching Respect and Spirituality). Many participants make the annual visit from reservations and urban areas in the New York state area while some have come from as far away as California. In addition to describing this program, a literature review that highlights some of the issues facing Native American youth in contemporary society accompanies this report. Insight and suggestions for developing similar programs are presented as well.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to present the on-going efforts of several concerned individuals and community leaders who, with corporate connections and support from Native American businesses and volunteers, have taken the initiative to organize a week long camping event for Native American youth. This event is held annually at the Ganondagan Native American historical site in upstate New York near Victor, Ontario County. At issue is the acknowledgment that many indigenous youth are growing up having never been exposed to the beliefs of their ancestors and that coming into adolescence with increased experience and knowledge of their culture may help in the self identity process. This self identity process is thought to aid them as they make their way living in "two worlds"; the world of their heritage and the world of the dominant society. Originators of the camp believe that a lack of exposure to traditional beliefs and values as they face the challenges of growing up in two cultures might contribute significantly to the increase of substance use and abuse and that a decline in healthy living practices can also lead to such conditions as obesity related diabetes.

At it's inception, the camp was originally intended to serve as a support for Native American adolescents who are interested in learning and retaining more of their cultural heritage. The program for the camp is designed so that the youth are provided with ample opportunity to network with other Native youth who face similar issues and challenges of identity development in contemporary society. A serendipitous outcome is that while the initial program was intended to be one of cultural discovery, it has evolved into a program that increasingly addresses matters of substance abuse prevention in Native youth based on an increased understanding of the indigenous culture.

Participants learn some of the traditional practices and values of their ancestors from Haudenosaunee elders and from youth who are more culturally aware. As the program has evolved, the youth who attend this event annually report that they have made conscious efforts to refrain from substances and to modify their lifestyle. Recently, due to the increased level of diabetes within many Native American communities, dietary issues have been addressed during recent camp initiatives while continuing the cultural learning and substance abuse prevention aspects. …