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Anti-smoking advocate gets national award

A Rocky Boy native has been honored by a national anti-smoking group for his work helping Native American and Alaska Native communities to stop using tobacco products.

Gerry RainingBird, an enrolled member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe who is the coordinator for the National Tribal Tobacco Prevention Network in Portland, Ore., was given the American Legacy Foundation's annual Community Activist Award at a ceremony in New York City last week.

The American Legacy Foundation is a national nonprofit organization located in Washington, D.C. According to its Web site, the foundation develops national programs to fight the health effects associated with tobacco, and reaches out to populations that are disproportionately affected by tobacco use, including American Indians.

This year the foundation gave seven different awards to individuals and groups, including actor Kirk Douglas.

The Community Activist Award "recognizes our most active and effective tobacco control leaders at the local level," according to the program from the awards ceremony.

"I was surprised and humbled, and certainly honored by it all," said RainingBird, who said he found out in early November that he had been chosen for the award and received it in New York on Nov. 24. "The work that I do, it's something that I enjoy doing, and it's part of the health goals and objectives of our agency," he added.

RainingBird said he has visited tribal communities and organizations across about 35 states in the last five years. During his visits he gives workshops on counteracting tobacco advertising, on smoking cessation, and on implementing secondhand smoke policies.

One of the organization's goals is to develop a national network of tribal support centers with tribes, villages and other health organizations in order to reduce the use of commercial tobacco in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, according to its Web site.

As part of his tobacco prevention efforts, RainingBird also tries to encourage tribes to use traditional tobacco instead of commercial tobacco in their cultural events. Indians across the country have a unique relationship with the tobacco plant, he said, because according to Indian tradition, tobacco was a gift to Indians from the Creator. The plant is often used in traditional ceremonies, he said. One of the network's goals is to "respect and promote the sacred use of traditional tobacco," according to the Web site.

"We encourage people to look for traditional tobacco instead of commercial tobacco products," RainingBird said, adding that there are about 4,000 chemicals in commercial tobacco, about 500 of which are poisonous and 43 of which cause cancer.

"A lot of people don't realize what they're really ingesting. It's not just nicotine and tobacco," he said.

"So you're looking at a product that when used as directed will kill you," RainingBird said. "The main difference between traditional tobacco and commercial tobacco is that traditional tobacco doesn't have 4,000 chemicals."

Tobacco addiction in tribal communities is a widespread problem with serious health consequences, he said. Nationwide, about 40 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives use commercial tobacco. RainingBird, an avid runner, said he was a social smoker until he decided to quit when he coached the Rocky Boy High School varsity cross country team in the early 1990s.

About two in five Indian deaths can be attributed to smoking-related conditions like lung cancer, related cancers, heart disease and emphysema, he said.

In 2001, that meant a cost of about $63 million for tribes in California alone, he said.

"We believe that every dollar that goes for prevention saves about six or seven dollars in health care costs," he said.

RainingBird, a Box Elder High School alumnus who graduated from Northern Montana College in 1983 with a bachelor's in physical education and health, began working for a health and wellness project sponsored by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board in 1993. The board is a tribal health organization that is governed by 43 tribes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

RainingBird began his tobacco prevention work in 1998, when he helped start an advisory council in Phoenix to reduce commercial tobacco use in Arizona.

In 1999 he became program manager for the American Indian Tobacco Education Network in Sacramento, Calif., where he facilitated statewide tobacco networks that focused on youth smoking prevention and strategies to counteract tobacco advertising.

RainingBird has been the coordinator of the National Tribal Tobacco Prevention Network in Portland since 2001. The Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board is the parent agency of the National Tribal Tobacco Prevention Network, he said.


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