August 2015

Tribal Green Reentry Youth Programs Incorporate Culture


Ada Pecos Melton, Rita Martinez and David J. Melton
The incorporation of hands-on “green” activities into traditional, juvenile-justice rehabilitation programs is a novel approach that is proving to have several benefits for tribal youth. These programs are designed to help youth successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release from confinement, as well as address problems that have instigated at-risk-youth referrals to the program.

Since October 2009, three tribes—Hualapai in Arizona, Mississippi Band of Choctaw and Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota—have implemented community-based Green Reentry initiatives through the Tribal Juvenile Detention and Reentry Green Demonstration Program funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The programs were part of a cross-site evaluation being conducted by RTI International and American Indian Development Associates, LLC.

These programs serve youth through innovative approaches that combine traditional interventions such as individual assessment, education, counseling and reentry planning, with activities such as gardening, hydroponics, beekeeping, raising chickens, equine therapy and skills development in green technologies.

The outdoor nature of green activities and the security-focused nature of juvenile detention facilities needed to be reconciled. This required a careful understanding of the specific activities that were feasible to implement. An important consideration was the extent to which youth would be able to continue their participation in green activities after their release. This can often be possible through collaboration with community-based partners.

Working in a garden and caring for living things is therapeutic for many people. Learning specific skills, such as horticultural techniques, greenhouse construction or solar panel installation, can make young people more employable and self-sufficient. Most youth interviewed expressed favorable views about their participation in the Green Reentry program, noting that they learned new things and had fun. Not all enjoyed working in a garden, however, with some expressing dissatisfaction with getting dirty and working in the heat. A staff member noted that, once the greenhouse was in place, the gardening aspect of the program became more enjoyable for the youth.

The incorporation of elements of Native culture has been essential to the success of these programs. Green Reentry programs offer a natural opportunity for tribal youth to reconnect with their traditional culture and for elders—the keepers of tribal wisdom and knowledge—to be involved in working with youth and sharing their knowledge through green activities such as using traditional planting methods (e.g., Three Sisters, native fruit tree windbreaks), greenhouse construction techniques (e.g., straw bale) and Native design principles. In addition, the grantees infused their programs with cultural activities to directly involve youth through traditional healing, sweat lodges, talking circles, history and language, traditional crafts and excursions to culturally significant sites.

Interviews with tribal staff, stakeholders, parents and participating youth indicated that youth acquiring cultural knowledge, skills, abilities and experiences become more grounded in understanding how they can use their culture to make changes in their lives and rely on it as a resource during stressful times.

Access to culturally relevant services and resources is both a right and an obligation that tribal governments share with state and federal agencies and is supported by laws such as the New Mexico Children’s Code (2011). Tribal programs are increasingly incorporating culture into prevention and intervention activities as a source of healing. The cultural programming incorporated into the three Green Reentry programs has also helped each of the tribal governments provide culturally relevant and appropriate services to their young citizens and families and increased collaboration among tribal and regional resources. The development of such partnerships can help tribes implement green technologies and environmentally sustainable activities to create long-term environmental and economic benefits.

Parents at all three sites expressed substantial support for the Green Reentry program, particularly for programming that provided their children with new skills such as gardening, beekeeping and green construction. They were also enthusiastic about activities that involved service to the community such as community clean-up. Most believed that positive changes in their children’s lives had resulted from their participation in the program.


Ada Pecos Melton, Rita Martinez and David J. Melton are with American Indian Development Associates, LLC, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 505.842.1122,


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