By Anthony Fleg, Native Health Initiative
3,500 youth will light their first cigarette today.
1,000 of these will become regular smokers.
350 of this group will eventually die from tobacco related illnesses.
But this article is not about that group, nor is it about more depressing statistics around the biggest preventable cause of death in our country.
Here, we want to introduce you to two youth champions who are working toward a world without smoking. This past week, Joel Ladon and Tychelle Herron from Ramah, NM travelled to present their Tar Wars posters in prestigious settings, at the New Mexico Academy of Family Physicians (NMAFP) annual seminar in Ruidoso, and at the national Tar Wars conference in Washington D.C., respectively.
Tar Wars, a national program to teach 4th and 5th grade students about the harms of smoking, holds a poster contest where youth create anti-smoking advertisements. In NM, a partnership called the Native Health Initiative (NHI) helps the NMAFP run the Tar Wars program and poster contest. NHI has added a twist to the program, incorporating the traditional/ceremonial/medicinal ways that tobaccos are used into an anti-smoking curriculum.
“When we hear educators talk about being tobacco-free, as Dine’ and as Indigenous people, we may be confused, since traditional tobaccos are so important to us as people,” comments Shannon Fleg (Dine’) who is a health educator with NHI who came up with the Breathe Tradition, Not Addiction campaign.
“We decided to take a big step this year and work on getting our poster winners to receive bigger recognition for their work,” says Andrew Goumas, an NHI Coordinator who helps coordinate the Tar Wars NM program.
Tychelle and her mother, Melinda Herron worked for months to fundraise to make the trip to D.C. possible, receiving donations from many in the Ramah community. “We received bundles of wood, leatherwork and lots of other donations that we used to fundraise for the trip,” says Melinda. “It was a chance for Tychelle to get on a plane for the first time, and to see our nation’s capitol, and we were going to do whatever it took to make it happen for her.”
Tychelle represented New Mexico at the Tar Wars Conference, where one youth winner from each state was picked to attend. Her poster was titled, Breathe Tradition, Not Addiction and was the only one at the conference that incorporated traditional tobacco.
“I was excited to go to talk about why smoking is harmful because my dad and uncle are smokers,” comments Tychelle. “I think this made me a better leader, because I had to explain to people about my poster and how tobacco products that have Indian images on them are just as harmful as the ones that don’t.”
Meanwhile, Joel and his parents, Ronnie and Nina Ladon made an 800-mile round-trip to Ruidoso for a chance to present Joel’s work in front of the state’s family physicians. Joel, whose heritage includes Ashiwi (Zuni) chose to use a traditional Zuni sun as the center of his art, explaining that this represented a healthy way to live without smoking.
“It was exciting to see a new place, and to see doctors asking me lots of questions about my poster,” says Joel.
Both students completed their posters as part of Ms. Melinda Blea’s 5th grade classroom at Ramah Elementary, and were chosen as two of the five winners statewide for the 2011 Tar Wars Poster Contest.
If you would like your child’s school to get involved with Tar Wars, you can contact Andrew with NHI (firstname.lastname@example.org)