On Valentine's Day, our thoughts turned to those we love and care for: friends, wives, children and elders. When the people we love go through hard times, we feel their pain and try to make things better. Unfortunately, many members of our tribal communities are going through dangerously hard times and their loved ones don't know what to do to help.
We've all seen the problems that can trouble the people we care about. Drug-endangered children suffer from neglect and develop self-esteem issues that lead to risky behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse, crime and gang activity. Respondents to our recent survey on gangs in Indian country showed that many of our tribal communities have criminal gangs, powerfully attractive for youth seeking approval and community.
Substance abuse is a leading risk factor for another common problem: domestic violence. The rate of aggravated assault in Indian country is nearly double the national rate. The incidence of rape against Native women is twice as high as for African Americans and seven times higher than for Caucasian women. These statistics are startling, especially because everyone agrees that such crimes go under-reported and under-tracked by tribal law enforcement. For more information, the Indian Health Service offers resources on domestic abuse.
Drug and alcohol use often leads to elder abuse as well. Native elders report abuse in many forms, including neglect, emotional abuse like exclusion, disrespect and threats of physical abuse, and financial exploitation. Abusive family members frequently exploit their elders by stealing money or medications, and by leaving kids with elders to go party, sometimes for days or weeks.
My colleague Walter Lamar recently testified at a hearing on the Defending Childhood Initiative, saying “Our children have been victimized for generations by those they were supposed to trust....Victimization in each generation affects the attitudes and emotions learned by the next. We carry the hurt of those who came before us and we learn hopelessness. The hopelessness comes from learned expectations – our limited expectations become our reality. It breaks my heart to think of our young people so desperate for relief they will swallow, inhale, snort, and inject almost any substance, no matter how dangerous, for a few fleeting moments of escape. They cut their bodies so the physical pain will minimize their mental pain. When the pain remains unbearable they make the horrible decision to end their lives.”
At Indian Country Training, we firmly believe that the solutions to ending the generations of victimization and hopelessness lie within our own communities. Our goal is to restore the very best quality of life to our tribal communities. We know that only a small percentage of our community members are drug-involved and creating larger problems. When we try to ignore the problem and accept their distorted norms, we suffer—and our children suffer, too.
Indian Country Training engages with tribes to develop community-based solutions for criminal problems as well as the underlying issues of substance abuse that too often aggravate irresponsible or violent behavior. Native community coalitions can successfully battle these problems and reduce harm to our tribal communities and reservations.
We have worked with the White Earth Tribe for several years and we're excited about the changes they're making to combat these underlying problems. Thanks to the official support, the White Earth Police Department was able to get funding from the Department of Justice to fund a custom educational program so the police can start working with kids at an early age to focus on the power of positive living.
Randy Goodwin, White Earth's Public Safety Director, explains the rationale behind this program, saying, “We feel it’s important to start educating our children on the power of positive living at an early age. Many of our students are struggling with serious issues outside of the classroom, such as prescription drug abuse and anger management for example, and we want them to understand there’s always a safe haven to be found in their teachers, police officers and tribal leaders. We also want them to have a solid understanding of some very serious topics that may affect their lives at a much younger age than most.”
Success stories like this are happening all over the country and we are proud of our role in raising awareness and enhancing the capacity of tribal governments to find—and fund—realistic solutions to problems in our community. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to protect our most vulnerable members: children, elders and women. All it takes to start is recognizing that we can no longer tolerate negative behavior in our communities.
Steven Juneau, enrolled member of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska and a descendent of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, is a former Special Agent in Charge with a distinguished career in law enforcement serving Indian Country at all levels. Currently he is the CEO of Indian Country Training, a division of Lamar Associates, a 100 percent American Indian owned company that delivers culturally appropriate training for Indian Country in both instructor-led education and e-learning online courses.