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Restoring a People -- Program Battles Native Substance Abuse

New America Media, News Feature, Words//Photo: Kenneth Kim Posted: Aug 13, 2008

Editor's Note: A substance abuse program uses faith, traditional Navajo ways and the life experience of the counselors to battle drug addition and alcoholism in Indian families. Kenneth Kim is a Los Angeles-based reporter for NAM. Coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

CROWNPOINT, N.M. -- The counselors of an intensive outpatient treatment center run here by the Navajo Nation, Pastor Cecil Lewis Jr. and Robinson Tom have started a fight against the tribes alcoholism and drug abuse because these problems hasten the breakdown of Indian families.

According to them, people addicted to alcohol and drugs lose self-confidence, giving up the will to live or do anything. Unable to raise their families due to addiction, they put their children under care of grandparents, uncles or aunts who are already struggling to survive on food stamps and scanty incomes.

Children who grew up watching the miseries of substance abuse often follow in their parents footsteps. In the end, the idea of a traditional mother and father or the concept of supportive, safe and nurturing family evaporates into thin air.

Even though tribes have made great strides in past years, the counselors argue that no less than 10 percent of Navajos could be diagnosed as alcoholics, and there isnt a single house in the Navajo Nation that isnt affected by alcohol or drug abuse. Use of methamphetamines among young people is also an issue. The predicament is mirrored throughout Indian reservations and communities across the country.

Pastor Lewis and Counselor Tom understand the situation very well because they have been there themselves. I was an alcoholic, said Pastor Lewis, a counselor for the Faith-based Initiative Project at the treatment center in this tiny town mostly populated by Navajos, about 130 miles northwest of Albuquerque. I thought getting drunk would be a way to alleviate and resolve my problems. But they just became worse. He said just like any other person in trouble, he tried many ways to live life and failed, until he finally found God in 1984 and turned his life around. I run into the people everyday who remind me of my past, said Robinson Tom, who has been sober for the last 15 years, Not only do alcoholism and substance abuse destroy a person, but they decimate families, relationships and beliefs.

Tom had his first drink when he was 9 years oldit was given to him by an adult relativeand he tried to kill himself in 10th grade. His suicidal urge was repeated three more times. Tom stopped drinking after he seriously injured himself by falling from a tall tree while drunk. In his sickbed, he felt that being an alcoholic wasnt the way his creator wanted him to live.

To tackle the substance abuse problem, Crownpoint Department of Behavioral Health Services, serving the Eastern Navajo region since 1970s, offers treatment services ranging from traditional Navajo methods to Alcoholics Anonymous classes. Since 2001, the center has administered a faith-based initiative project, to promote access to spiritual healing services for the Navajos suffering from substance abuse.

In Navajo, the center is called Dine Bee lina Na Hisoolnaal Center. According to Tom, the native phrase means restoring the life of a person so he can live the way he was supposed to live. Most of the centers clients are those who ran into trouble with the law because of their addiction and were ordered to take up to six weeks of counseling programs.

Pastor Lewis, who is also leading about 20 to 35 congregations at Dear Spring Mission in the area, puts emphasis on spiritual healing through the words of God. During counseling, he uses the Bible as a tool, which he believes to possess the power of changing a person. Deep inside our hearts is an inner man, said Pastor Lewis. Theres spirit which was always hungry for God. When you find the god, youll look beyond our natural instincts or ways of life and can change the miserable life. Counselor Tom relies on treatments rooted in Navajo traditions. For example, he likes to take his clients to a sweat lodge at the center for purification ceremonies.

Dozens of alcoholics and drug abusers in shorts sit in the pitch darkness of a tent made of sticks and wool blankets. In the middle of the dirt floor, a pit has been dug and filled with rocks heated by fire.

Cedar logs are thrown on the rocks, giving off a fragrance, and then lavender, sage and sweet grass. A bucket of water is then thrown on the rocks, filling the tent with a heavy steam. There, the abusers and addicts purify their spirit corrupted with alcohol and drugs. Women clients use a separate sweat lodge.

Tom sees the sweat lodge as a way to share culture and help his fellow Navajo clients find a more spiritual path that leads them to a right way. However, the treatment alone cant tackle the substance abuse problems. In order to attack the substance abuse effectively, there must be a way to fight poverty, because it leads to alcoholism and drug abuse, said Pastor Lewis. Just think how the Navajo Nation would be improved if there was a majority of people working and earning.

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