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A Story of Hope for Native Americans

July 1, 2006
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Alcohol Problems in Native America: The Untold Story of Resistance and Recovery—‘The Truth About the Lie’

Don L. Coyhis and William L. White; White Bison, Inc.; Colorado Springs, Colo., (719) 548-1000; 2006; ISBN: 1-59975-229-8; softcover; 258 pages; $18.95

Anyone working in a program serving Native Americans should consider this volume required reading for uncovering the misinterpretations and omissions that have marked the related history of Native Americans and alcohol use. Moreover, anyone who has ever drawn conclusions about any client's addiction and prospects for recovery based on a supposed understanding of cultural influences may experience an awakening after reading this powerful work. Its lessons likely transcend the painful experiences of the Native American community.

Telling the Native American story is a lot about credibility. And it's hard to imagine a more credible pair of collaborators than Don Coyhis, founder of the nonprofit group White Bison that is facilitating the Native community's ambitious “Wellbriety” movement, and William White, who has detailed recovery in Native tribes among his many contributions to chronicling the field's history. While writing in part to inspire Native Americans with largely untold stories of recovery and the recapturing of the Native heritage, the coauthors make it clear that they also want to help policy makers “see Native alcohol and other drug problems in a larger historical and cultural perspective.”

To do this, Coyhis and White use the early chapters to familiarize readers with Native Americans' use and attitudes toward alcohol before and after their contact with Europeans. What emerges in this section, through the help of much detailed and referenced information, is that while alcohol use prior to European contact was marked by elaborate rituals that minimized abuse, use patterns began to become destructive for more Natives after tribes came under physical and cultural assault. A broader racial interpretation of Natives' alcohol-using behavior perpetuated these problems, with Euro-Americans using to their advantage the mistaken notions that Native Americans had a genetic propensity to alcohol abuse and that they were incapable of resolving alcohol problems without outside intervention.

Recovery champions

This book counters common stereotypes in demonstrating not only that Native American history is replete with tribal leaders who became advocates for recovery, but that their words and deeds resembled those of individuals who would be considered pioneers in the modern recovery movement hundreds of years later.

One of many examples of this cited in the book revolves around John Slocum, who founded the Indian Shaker Church in 1882 after reporting an experience in which he was told by an angel of God that he and his people should live as Christian Indians. The authors compare the “shining light” Slocum reported seeing as similar to the words AA cofounder Bill Wilson would use many years later in relating his awakening experience.

The sense of a recovery community in fact has always been strong in the Native culture, Coyhis and White explain. “Native frameworks of recovery have always been, and continue to be, framed in terms of an inextricable link between hope for the individual and hope for a community and a people,” they write.

Wellbriety movement

Recent years have seen Native American strategies for healing more integrated with mainstream treatment approaches and entities, with some 12-Step programs now tailored to Native culture and federal agencies having begun to lend their support to traditional Native approaches to healing. Clearly the White Bison organization's goal of having 100 Native communities in healing from alcohol abuse by 2010 represents the community's boldest step yet to overcome past hurt.

Wellbriety's emphasis is on decentralized information sharing and the generation of local solutions to a community's alcohol-related problems. “Alcohol problems are not an indigenous element of Indian culture,” the authors state. “They are a malignant cancer that was injected into a healthy culture with the intent of poisoning and killing a culture and its people. Seen in the context of this history, sobriety is a revolutionary act—a refusal to participate in the destruction of oneself and one's culture.”

The authors conclude that this community effort is only beginning to show its true potential. That provides much reason for hope to a people that still has many wounds to heal.

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