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Tribal leaders hold summit on substance abuse

WASHINGTON - Despite statistics which show an overall reduction in youth drug abuse, American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest rates of drug use in the nation.

In a search for causes and some possible solutions, tribal leaders and program managers from across Indian country gathered here for a national summit on alcohol, substance abuse, and violence.

"Our people are filling up our tribal centers with serious problems," said LeeAnn Tall Bear, program manager for the Dakota Pride Center of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. "We need help from the federal government to fund more prevention programs at the tribal level and we need to work harder to certify all tribal programs."

Recent statistics show American Indian and Alaska Native people have the highest rate of drug use with the exception of alcohol, for which whites report the highest prevalence. Among youth ages 12 to 17, American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of current use of illicit drugs, 19.6 percent, and death rates from alcohol-related causes are more than three times higher for American Indians and Alaska Natives than for other groups.

Tribal experts and health officials cite a number of factors which lead to such high rates of abuse. Risk factors for American Indians and Alaska Natives include lower levels of education, less access to health care and a lower than average socioeconomic status. About a third of all Native households have incomes that place them below the poverty line, economic conditions which experts say place them at a higher risk to use alcohol and other drugs.

The U.S. Office of Minority Health also reports that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness, conditions shown to relate to high incidences of alcohol and other drug problems.

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However, tribal program managers also point to the lack of government support and coordination with tribes in establishing and certifying tribal programs, as well as a need for more reliable sources of funding.

"Tribes need to be treated as nation-states when it comes to these kind of federal services," Tall Bear said. "We have to really work together. We don't have access to the same programs as states. There has to be a way to gain similar access to programs and block grants."

During the summit, presidential drug czar Barry McCaffrey announced the federal government was launching new anti-drug advertising efforts aimed at Indian youth. The advertisements are part of a $3 million prevention campaign by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The campaign will reach 29 national magazines and newspapers that target tribal audiences, 70 local tribal newspapers, 14 local radio stations, and 29 radio stations that reach Alaska Native communities and television stations throughout Alaska.

"We owe Indian people a better crafted alcohol and drug prevention message," said McCaffrey. "The message has to make sense to the people we're trying to reach and tribal leadership has to be at the heart and soul of these efforts."

The ads are the first ever based on new behavioral research into how to most effectively communicate anti-drugs messages to American Indian youth, their parents, and others who work with youth in the community. The research was conducted earlier this year in Fairbanks, Alaska, Billings, Mont., and Phoenix, Ariz. The research included 24 focus groups comprising 211 Native teens, 11 to 13, and teens and parents representing 32 tribes.

McCaffrey also outlined expanded opportunities for tribal communities to access substance abuse prevention funding through drug-free community grants. The new advertisements developed from the research began airing in July in tribal media markets across the country.