Cultures in Recovery: A powerful sobriety movement is transforming Indian societies from Alaska to Florida

May 15th, 1992 | By | Category: 4-1: Breaking Down the Walls: Confronting Alcohol, Drugs and Family Violence, Features
By Nancy Butterfield, Paul Boyer, and Jennifer Gray Reddish

CULTURES IN RECOVERYLorraine Weaselboy, a 27-year-old mother of two, is by any standard a positive role model. She believes in the traditional way of her tribe, advocating the education of youth in the Cree language. And after two semesters at Stone Child Community College, she seems well on her way to grad­uating with a human services degree and becoming a chemical dependency counselor.

However, Weaselboy did not always have such clear priori­ties. At the age of nineteen, she left the Rocky Boy Reservation for Eastern Montana College in Billings, six hours from home. Accustomed to being around her family, she found the transition hard to make. “1 had to change to fit into the white man’s world, which was difficult,” she says. Feeling alone and uncertain, Weaselboy says it was there that she first turned to alcohol.

In the years that followed she led an unsettled life, once wandering as far as New Jersey. But when she became the mother of two children, now ages one and three, she decided her life must change. “I had to choose between alcohol and my kids,” she says. She chose her kids and has now completed almost a year of sobriety.

With the help of Stone Child Community College, Weaselboy has entered into the healing process. Along with her classes, she also attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. With other A. A. members, she takes part in sweat lodge cere­monies and talks about alcohol and everyday problems.

During this process, she also has learned to help others. “I want to help other people in the same situation,” she says. “I want to help them understand and pray in the Indian way. I want to help counsel students. They should understand they do not have to turn to alcohol.”

For years, Weaselboy reflected the grim statistics of Indian alcoholism that have become so familiar: Indian Health Service and tribal alcoholism experts estimate that seventy five percent of all Indian families have at least one alcoholic member and that nearly one hundred percent have been affected in some way by alcoholism. The incidence of homi­cides, suicides and domestic violence, almost always fueled by alcohol, is much higher than the national average. The rate of death by alcohol-related disease, such as cirrhosis and heart disease, is also higher.

But today, like thousands of other native Americans, Weaselboy is part of a growing phenomenon in Indian country that focuses on sobriety, but has expanded to embrace the wider spectrum of physical and spiritual wellness. The move­ment is in many ways only beginning, but its impact already can be seen in Indian communities from Alaska to Florida.

The push for sobriety began about twenty years ago and has become increasingly visible during the last decade. In part, it reflects the larger national effort to combat substance abuse. But in a growing number of native American communities, sobriety has become more than a movement; it has emerged as a powerful and emotional crusade. With increasing urgency, tribal institutions, community leaders and committed individ­uals are joining together to rebuild lives and cultures.

This is in sharp contrast to the mood of helplessness and denial that many observers say existed only a few years ago. Believing that little could be done to confront alco­holism, tribal members did not speak against drinking and many communities had no alcohol education or treatment programs. Even where programs did exist, their work was not always sup­ported by tribal leaders. “In the past, many tribal councils expected alcoholism workers to turn out sober Indians as if they were on an assembly line, inputting alcoholics on one end and producing recovered alcoholics on the other,” writes Elvin Willie, a former chairman of Nevada’s Walker River Pauite Tribe, in a 1989 issue of Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. “And yet,” he adds, “the tribal leaders continued to approve liquor licenses and continued to promote fund raising events that were many times based on liquor sales.”

But slowly the movement took hold and a few communities began to see evidence of success. One of the most remarkable stories took place within the Shuswap Tribe of Alkali Lake in British Columbia. Known to some in the surrounding commu­nities as Alcohol Lake, the rural community once suffered from 95 percent alcoholism. On some nights, it was said, not one single adult in town would be sober.

But in 1971 one woman from Alkali Lake decided to stop drinking and to do what she could to help her family and the entire band do the same. From the commitment of this one individual, a movement slowly grew and led, fifteen years later, to 98 percent sobriety within the same community (see related story, page 11).

For many years the Alkali Lake community worked among themselves with little publicity. For the early pio­neers, especially, it was a time of isolation and loneliness. But in 1987 Choctaw film-maker Phil Lucas produced The Honour of All: The People of Alkali Lake which told the story of their remarkable achievement. The film was distributed wide­ly across Canada and the United States and became required viewing for tribes and anyone concerned about American Indian alcoholism.

The tribe became a model for other Indian communities. Researchers began to investigate the tribe’s self-discovered strategies for success. But perhaps Alkali Lake’s greatest con­tribution was the gift of hope. Its name became a rallying cry for hundreds of reservations in North America. Leaders from the community are still in constant demand as speakers and trainers, and recently they have taken their message to native peoples in Central and South America.

Today, the evidence of this growing movement can be seen everywhere as individuals, tribes and key Indian organizations have made sobriety a priority. For example, The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Indian organization in the United States, decided in 1986 that all future of its functions would be alcohol-free, according to Executive Director Michael Anderson. The National Indian Education Association adopted a similar policy in 1989.

“There is a marked difference in attitudes about drinking,” says Anderson. “Our conventions used to be wild parties. Today it’s much less socially acceptable to be drinking heavily. The political consequences of tribal leaders drinking are much more severe now.”

Anderson, a Creek tribal member, recalls a reception he attended recently at a conference of Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. “They had a cash bar, but only five people used it,” he says. “Everybody else was drinking soft drinks or mineral water.”

The National Indian Education Association, whose annual conferences can draw more than 4,000 people, adopted an alcohol-free policy in preparation for its 22nd annual confer­ence in Anchorage, Alaska.

Then-president Ed Parisien says, “We’ve been moving toward activities that don’t include alcohol for several years. And when we met with the native people from Alaska in preparation for our Anchorage conference, they asked us if we would have the conference alcohol-free.”

“Not everyone (on the NIEA Board) supported the idea,” Parisien recalls, “but a majority of us did.”

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