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“The Only Smoke They Should be Exposed to” – Prizewinning Essay by Alani Ethelbah

In the spring of 2023, young people ages 13-23 throughout the North Coast region were encouraged to learn about the dangers of tobacco and nicotine product use and the tobacco industry’s predatory practices toward youth. They were then invited to submit an art project expressing what they learned for the Born to Breathe Youth 2023 Media Festival.

With a $5,000 prize fund, thanks to a generous donation from Adventist Health Clearlake, 29 young people created 22 entries in song, video, written word, sculpture, two-dimensional drawing, and computer-generated drawing categories. This written word entry by Alani Ethelbah of Mendocino County wowed our judges and earned her $300 in prize money.

All entries can be seen at https://norcal4health.org/2023-b2b-gallery and a mini-documentary of interviews with the entrants can be viewed at https://norcal4health.org/take-action-menu.   

They hadn’t come home in a long time. That’s why the elders are mad. The roundhouse is a sacred place for our people. It’s where we go to bring in the new year, to give the newborn babies their native names, to celebrate our strawberry festival. It’s where we go to heal and connect with our culture and pay respect to our traditions. Yet there are people who turn their backs to it all. People who never come home. The elders are mad. They say that these people have lost their way. That they are poisoned. No good.

It’s aunts, uncles, cousins, fathers, and moms. My mom. I never understood why people would want to stay away. Our ancestors fought so hard so that we could have our songs, our language, and our dances. If we push it away, disrespect it, and let it drift away it’ll all disappear just like they wanted it to. Those people who tried to take it away from us, they’ll win.

When I was still in the transitional stage between a kid and a teenager adults did this funny thing. They talked about private business in front of me thinking I understood less than I did and knew less than I know. “I want to dance. Maybe I’ll be able to make it this year. But it’s hard going to the roundhouse now”. I asked her why inside my head because I could never ask why out loud. But still she responded to me as if she knew what I was thinking the way mothers always do. “I stopped going to the roundhouse when I started getting bad, you know? You’re not supposed to go when you’re doing those types of things. But even now that I’m all good it still doesn’t feel right going there”. “People have lost their way. Elders standing outside the roundhouse smoking leaving their cigarette butts on the sacred ground we’re supposed to take care of. There’s posters lining the walls of the tribal center saying the fire smoke is ‘The only smoke our children should be exposed to’ but they don’t practice what they preach”. “It doesn’t feel right. They wonder why all of us have stopped dancing. Doing these like that. It’s not the way it used to be”.

I couldn’t believe it. I could never imagine that there was a time people would never even dare to smoke at the roundhouse. For as long as I knew that’s how things were. When I was still just a little girl and my eyes and lungs still weren’t used to the smoke of the round house I would go outside to give them a break. As soon as I stepped out there was always a thick fog that lingered just above my head. I’d cough the smoke of the cigarettes filling my lungs trying to see past it to find a clear spot where I could breathe. I remember once my little cousin had even picked up an old cigarette butt from the ground and tried to light it with the fire that gave light to the dressing rooms outside. That’s when I realized my people were lost. Our community was poisoned and we were falling into the traps that were made special just for us. We as Native Americans are a part of the priority population for these companies. Our people are some of their main victims. When I was young I didn’t know that we were in a fight against it. One that my people were falling to. One that my mom and all those other people who had never come home didn’t want to watch happen.

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