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KEEP TOBACCO SACRED
Salish Healer Joins
UM Tobacco-Abuse Prevention Project
Danny Vollin, a former smoker who 22 years ago struggled to quit puffing three to four packs a day, now spends his time in American Indian reservation high schools praising tobacco. Vollin, a Salish traditional healer, believes that ignorance of the sacred powers of tobacco is responsible for the widespread increase of tobacco abuse among American Indians. “When you say that tobacco is sacred but you don’t explain it, you almost give people an excuse to smoke,” he says.
Vollin works with the “Many Voices One Message — Keep Tobacco Sacred” tobacco-abuse prevention project coordinated by UM’s Resource Center for Technical Assistance and Training. “Many Voices” began as a tobacco-abuse prevention conference organized by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and has evolved into a three-year project — thanks to a $175,000 annual grant from the American Legacy Foundation.
Bringing anti-tobacco messages to American Indian communities, where tobacco has long been used in religious rituals, poses a unique challenge — one that requires cultural relevance and historical perspective.
The “Many Voices” project hopes to meet that challenge by asking Vollin and other tribal members to share information about the sacred role of tobacco in American Indian cultures with this message: The tobacco plant, a symbol of tradition, should be revered, not abused for recreational purposes.
The gains achieved so far in this campaign are the result of the collaboration of tribal leaders who are involved in developing the project. “We give them the tools, and they tailor them to their specific needs,” says Bernadette Bannister, director of the resource center. “Because of their high-level participation in the project, ‘Many Voices’ has been successful in getting culturally relevant tobacco-abuse prevention information to American Indian populations.”
The center conducts training seminars that help participants develop effective campaigns aimed at preventing tobacco abuse. A June seminar in Polson featured prayer ceremonies and guest speakers who talked about the historical roles of tobacco in their tribes. The seminar’s keynote speaker, Clayton Small, an expert on American Indian health issues from Albuquerque, N.M., says studies and surveys that show American Indian communities as the most economically depressed in the nation and cast Native Americans as victims have created a sense of hopelessness that makes it hard for individuals to resist self-destructive habits such as smoking.
Presently Vollin is the only full-time speaker who reaches reservation communities at the grass-roots level through the “Many Voices” project. Bannister says limited funding hampers plans to expand this and other critical phases of the project. But even with limited funding, Bannister and her team are confident they are making a difference with the “Many Voices” project by employing their most formidable weapon — awareness. Small agrees: “However Herculean the task may seem, educating the population is the key to winning this fight.” V