Breaking the cycle: stopping substance abuse before it starts

It is impossible to walk into Jeddito Elementary School without being struck by its beauty—multi-colored walls and ceilings, skylights, an open courtyard, comfortable classroom spaces. The school welcomes the visitor, and certainly must welcome the child.

As in most schools around the country, Jeddito teachers, staff and administrators want to do what is best for their students. Sometimes that means being more than just a teacher; they must be mentors and friends, dealing with tough problems their students can encounter once they leave school grounds, problems like parental substance-abuse.

On this day, August 11, Jeddito teachers, administrators and staff have gathered for their final day of an In-Service training--Save the Child/Save the Teen a program designed to help teachers break the substance abuse cycle and help these bright, young kids stay in school.

The Save the Child/Save the Teen program, run by Vincente de la Garza of the Sobriety Training Institute, is holistic in its approach to help "at-risk" kids. While the employees of Jeddito learned how to redirect misbehavior during the three-day training, they also examined other factors which can negatively affect a Native American child’s education, some of which go back 200 years.

Cultural invasion-drinking habits

De la Garza feels that in order to break the substance abuse cycle, we must understand substance abuse patterns, patterns developed long ago when Native America underwent a cultural invasion by the Europeans. Native Americans, he points out, did not distill alcohol (and so had no experience with the substance) before the Europeans arrived. But settlers, miners, and trappers required heavy drinking during trading and almost all other interactions. Coupled with the Native American "cultural trait" of generosity, and the "reciprocal pressures to accept the generosity," Native Americans felt compelled to drink.

America’s prohibition policies also reinforced "heavy drinking" among indigenous populations. Although "White America" had this unsuccessful policy in place for just 13 years, Indian Prohibition was in place for a whopping 121 years, from 1832-1953. And while the double standard caused resentment and defiance among Native peoples, those "years of illegality helped to foster abusive drinking styles." With one eye open for the police, Native Americans began to practice "secretive, quick drinking." Since drinking habits are a learned behavior, says de la Garza, the cycle had begun.

As for theories linking alcoholism to a specific gene, de la Garza could not disagree more. "There is no such thing as an Indian alcoholic gene. There has never been an alcoholic gene identified for any group of people," he says, and accepting such a theory is dangerous. "If we believe there is a gene responsible for alcoholism, we all assume we are doomed"—doomed to drink, and doomed to be alcoholics.

In stark contrast, says de la Garza, and what very few people know, says de la Garza, is that "indigenous peoples have the highest rate of teetotalers,"—those who don't drink at all.

Cultural invasion-learning styles

Cultural invasion has also affected learning styles. Dr. Lula Mae Stago, who works with de la Garza, has done extensive research in the effects of cultural invasion on indigenous peoples. Cultural invasion, she says, is the root cause of all social problems, including alcoholism, because it caused indigenous people to "think hopelessly, to lose heart."

"People adopted a view of themselves as objects, as victims. They started to believe that they could not think for themselves."

This oppressive conditioning was furthered by boarding schools, where efforts to obliterate Native people’s language and culture were intense.

Although schools have changed quite a bit since then, many teachers remain "untrained in the unique motivational triggers, anger responses and values of Native American children, and feel they must rely on alternative school settings for our children. These alternative schools result in our children being labeled as problem students, with little chance of completing school," says de la Garza.

"These bright, bright Indian kids are asked to learn at the expense of their identity, says Stago. "Teaching strategies lean too much toward linguistic memorization, verbal direction and fill in the blank."

Kids learn best, says Stago, when they can creating meaning for themselves, through experiential learning—the hands-on approach.

"These kids have been forced to learn in a way that does not work, does not connect with their culture. Academic concepts are taught from the wrong perspective. But schools control the conditions for learning," she says. "We can change the way the children are taught."

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