Native Americans make up 1.5 percent of Nevada’s population, but data show they have disproportionately higher rates of substance abuse than the general population. In the past, the state’s Native American communities didn’t always receive the substance abuse prevention services they needed. So in 2005, Nevada funded the Statewide Native American Coalition (SNAC). An affiliate of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, SNAC’s overarching goal was to facilitate communication between the state and its 27 federally recognized tribes, ensuring that tribal needs were heard and addressed.
“Our Native population is spread across the state, split between urban, rural, and frontier areas,” says SNAC Executive Director Monty Williams. “There are vast differences among these communities—in their mindsets and lifestyles.” Yet these diverse tribal communities often share the same substance abuse challenges. SNAC offers a vehicle for them to coordinate their efforts, set priorities, and make their case collectively to the state for services. According to Williams, SNAC “brings key leaders together on the same page” and enables a level of collaboration needed to get essential services to tribal people.
One Voice, One Nation
Williams sits on the state’s Multidisciplinary Prevention Advisory Committee, and currently serves as the chair, where he works with representatives from Nevada’s drug enforcement, veteran’s affairs, juvenile justice, and mental health departments to share data and make sure that tribal priorities are heard and addressed. “Having one—versus 27—entities to work with has helped us be more responsive to Tribal needs,” explains Charlene Herst, Prevention Team Supervisor for the Nevada Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Agency. “Monty is an effective and invaluable point person.”
But Williams is careful to recognize the autonomy of individual tribes when presenting their concerns.
“[Before SNAC], whenever [tribes] did anything with state agencies, they would ask, ‘Is this the voice of the whole Nevada nation?’ But each tribal community is a sovereign nation,” he explains. “The Fallon Paiute Shoshone, for example, can’t speak for the Elko Te-Moak Shoshone or for the Wells Band Shoshone. [SNAC] recognizes each tribe’s individual autonomy, while still speaking with one voice for all the tribes in the state.”
Williams has also worked closely with Charlene Howard, the state analyst assigned to work with SNAC, to help her, and others in the state, better understand tribal culture and dynamics. “Monty helped us recognize the importance of understanding the American Indian culture,” Howard explains. “We’ve learned to be flexible … that what we demand from our [other] coalitions will not work in Indian country.”
As SNAC’s Executive Director, Williams has helped tribal leaders understand the value of prevention. “Before [SNAC], the state gave money to the tribes without understanding the dynamics involved,” says Williams. “Sometimes the money would be put into programs other than substance abuse prevention, because substance abuse was just one of the problems tribes faced…. Today, the monies that are put to tribes are actually going for prevention, and are making a difference.”
Williams has also helped tribal leaders recognize the importance of using data to understand and address their tribes’ substance abuse problems. He relies on SAMHSA’s Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF) to do so.
“Everything we do is focused on the SPF model,” Williams says. “The SPF elevates the importance of data. It helps us prioritize our needs.” The SPF also provides a shared language for communicating with state agencies, which also use the model to plan and implement their prevention activities.
SNAC collaborated with the state to implement a comprehensive data gathering effort—the first ever that involved all of the tribes. Williams then worked with SNAC’s advisory committee to analyze the data and identify substance abuse priorities. “When we first started the coalition, we were all over the place with the issues,” he explains. “Now we’ve been able to hone it down to two or three, based on the data. Issues that we’re really pushing across all the tribes.”
Addressing Prevention Needs
In recent years, many tribal communities have begun establishing their own guidelines and regulations to restrict substance use abuse. SNAC has provided a vehicle for sharing their approaches, challenges, and lessons learned. Tribes have also begun working collectively. For example, the Nevada Tribal Chiefs of Police Association is currently working with the state Attorney General’s office to broker an agreement that will allow county and local law enforcement officials to enter tribal jurisdictions in the course of their work, and for tribal police to enter non-tribal areas. When passed, the agreement will be key to ensuring consistent enforcement of drug-control and related policies.
“The state recognizes the Tribal Chiefs of Police as a viable law enforcement association,” says Williams. “They do a lot of their own resource sharing, and discuss many of the legislative policies coming down. It’s a strong force.”
SNAC also supports a Cultural Advisory Board, comprising elders, youth, parents, and businesses, to identify and promote substance abuse prevention activities that build on tribal traditions. One of these is the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Native Gathering, a three-day retreat for teens to experience their culture, receive mentoring, and strengthen coping skills. In 2010, Nevada nominated the program to participate in Service to Science, a SAMHSA-funded initiative designed to help innovative, locally developed programs become more evidence-based. Charlene Howard, the state program analyst assigned to work with SNAC, played a key role in advocating to the state for the importance of the program.
Williams, Herst, and Howard all agree that good relationships have been key to maintaining this successful state-tribal collaboration. “This partnership is built on trust. We recognize the history; that things have not always gone smoothly. So it’s important to be willing to learn, to be flexible,” Howard says.