Tribal communities embrace strong cultural identity as a source of resilience that can empower youth, helping them resist the lure of drugs and overcome challenges posed by substance use disorders. Walking in Strength—a program of OJJDP grantee Project Venture—is rooted in this premise. The program aims to strengthen the resilience of youth living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where substance use disorders impact many families.
“Project Venture” refers to both an organization and a model for youth programming in Native communities. The Project Venture model emphasizes resilience by building on youth strengths and reinforcing their ties to each other and to the natural world. Young people participate in adventure-based activities—rock climbing, rappelling, and ropes courses, for example—and in service projects that emphasize environmental stewardship and address climate change, according to Sheri Pfeiffer-Tsinajinnie, Project Venture’s Chief Operating Officer.
Walking in Strength considers family, community, and traditional cultural practices to be essential components of any program to prevent or mitigate substance use disorders. Its three-pronged approach involves:
Project Venture: Finding Strength in Heritage and Nature
OJJDP grantee Project Venture launched in Albuquerque, NM, in 1988 as the National Indian Youth Leadership Project. Over 35 years, the program has reached more than 9,000 Indigenous youth in hundreds of communities across 25 states and in Canada, Hungary, and Jamaica. Project Venture was implemented on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2016 with the help of Tribal leader Paul Iron Cloud, Sr., a Lakota Chief and CEO of the Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing.
In 1995, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) National Registry of Effective Programs and Practices recommended the Project Venture model for replication nationally and internationally. Today, SAMHSA recognizes Project Venture as an evidence-based model for preventing substance misuse by youth ages 10–17.
OJJDP first funded Project Venture in 2014, under the Multistate Mentoring Program. Today, OJJDP funding supports Project Venture’s Walking in Strength program under the Opioid Affected Youth Initiative.
- Providing families access to trauma-informed, holistic, culturally guided interventions and services to support them through treatment for and recovery from substance use disorders.
- Mobilizing community-level collaborations with public health service providers to raise awareness about substance use disorders and develop culturally informed prevention and intervention strategies. Walking in Strength also builds community networks—involving Tribal government, law enforcement professionals, mental health providers, and educators—to help strengthen family connections.
- Enrolling young people in the Project Venture program to reduce risk factors that predispose them to opioid and substance use disorders and strengthen protective factors.
Project Venture grounds participants in their Indigenous roots while introducing them to new and challenging experiences, explains Thomas Cloud Horse, who has led Project Venture in South Dakota since 2016 and lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. More than 85 percent of the 20,000 people living there are American Indian, most of them members of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
“We have seen our participants work through their fear to overcome challenges they didn’t think possible and create friendships that last beyond our program,” Mr. Cloud Horse says. “This social-emotional program helps our Indigenous youth work through trauma, grief, and hardships, and gives them the tools to be successful in life.”
Mr. Cloud Horse recalls an overnight fishing trip in South Dakota’s Black Hills. One student was standoffish and kept to himself—but then he asked if could attend the next camp in Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain State Park. During that 400-mile road trip, the youth opened up. He talked about his mother’s recent death—and his remorse at choosing not to be with her during her final days.
“This guilt and regret were something he carried with him daily,” Mr. Cloud Horse says. “This was the start of us seeing a completely different student.” He began joining in group activities: rock climbing, helping around camp, even joining a new friend in singing “happy birthday.”
“While this may seem minor to some, it is an example of how our program helps those students who are not understood or don’t have a place to truly be themselves,” Mr. Cloud Horse says. “This camp created a safe environment for him to express his emotions and to be in community with his peers.”
With Walking in Strength, Project Venture aims to reach more than 200 middle school students during the 2023–24 school year. Over the last 7 years, Project Venture has worked with young people at six middle schools and two high schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation, implementing activities that resonate with the Lakota culture. The program has helped youth cope with scores of challenges, including a local epidemic of deaths by suicide.