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Traditional Native Games as a bridge to strengthening community ties and belonging

Traditional Native Games is a holistic training that tackles some challenges of drug abuse and suicide through play by way of cultural revitalization. The program is intended for youth, youth workers and community members. The program is typically delivered in person, but it went online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Solomon Trimble
Solomon Trimble

Solomon Trimble, the educator at the helm of Traditional Native Games, has begun to slowly return to working in the community in person.

Traditional Native Games range from simple to complex. Some games include ring toss, or bowling a dreamcatcher and lining up in two rows to shoot arrows through it, whereby the winner is the one who not only successfully shoots through the moving dreamcatcher, but also stops it with their arrow by shooting their arrow in the ground.

Beyond the activity of play, Traditional Native Games provide the opportunity for community building and normalizing difficult conversations. “Seeing the strength of how learning Pan-Indian cultural knowledge can be a bridge to getting reconnected to your culture," says Trimble. "A lot of kids that were suicidal or using drugs had a disconnection, and Traditional Native Games was the bridge to help them get back to the culture. Culture is prevention. A lot of people say that a lot, but that’s true.” 

Trimble discussed how important it is to connect the games to education. He uses a method called QPR, or question, persuade, refer. QPR is a nationally used method for suicide prevention designed to teach community members the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond.

Youth in Indian Country are at the highest risk for suicide and suicidal ideation. The research shows people who are considering suicide send warning signs to peers of the same age first, friends and family second, and to school or health professionals third. This gives QPR a particularly important role in youth programming. Training youth, families, and youth program staff can help ensure a safety network for those in distress.

Trimble explains, “I like games with some curriculum, so I use QPR training which is about normalizing checking in which each other, talking about suicide, and to literally use the sentence ‘Are you suicidal?’ and train people to not beat around the bush.”

Solomon described the challenges of QPR training, including the need to dispel misconceptions surrounding suicide. One myth is ‘the more you talk about suicide, the more likely suicides are to occur’. He emphasizes that it is simply not true.

QPR training, delivered through Traditional Native Games with youth, focuses on normalizing asking fellow peers directly if they are suicidal, persuading them to seek help and connecting them to resources, through the referral process. The referral may be to tribal spiritual elders, to staff or clergy as well as more general suicide prevention resources such as the National Suicide Prevention line.

Other challenges facing the program delivery of Traditional Native Games and QPR curriculum is the long history of missteps University of Minnesota and Extension have had in engaging Native communities in the state. While this poses a serious set of challenges, one of the innovations of Traditional Native Games and other programming conducted through the American Indian Resource and Resiliency Team is the way in which engagement is established.

“The hope is to, at the request of tribal youth workers, help them gain agency in the prevention practices, without asking for anything," said Trimble. "Without requiring them to pay, without requiring them to give us data just helping them utilize what's already been proven to work. And to aid in indigenizing the curriculum for their community specifically. The hope is to help them implement systems and programs that stay.”

In a moment of reflection, Solomon who has a master’s degree in epidemiology and another in biological statistics, shared, “I’m technically doing epidemiology now, finding what works to lower the burden of suicide and opioid use, and then helping communities implement that prevention work."

Solomon aptly summarized the importance of Traditional Native Games, “Let's play games, and also let's normalize checking in with each other.”

To learn more about the opioid work, partnerships and programming, visit opioid.umn.edu.

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