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DEBUNKED Special Feature: Tribal, Indigenous Practices For Managing Addiction

Courtesy of Ashanti Moritz

J. Carlos Rivera is a tribal member of the Sherwood Band of Pomo Indians and also of Mexican descent. When it comes to healing, he follows the guidance of Wallace Black Elk, of the Lakota tribe.

Black Elk taught that assimilated and colonized Native Americans have to choose between two paths: the dark road, paved with addiction and self-destruction, or the red road, which, despite being colored by the blood shed of ancestors, is a path of healing.  

“It's a road of beautiful culture,” Rivera said. “It's a path of language and spirituality and practicing our ancestral teachings. The red road is being sober and not using, you know, alcohol that really was given to our ancestors as a way to manipulate their mind.”

After struggling with addiction to the point of becoming homeless, Rivera reached his breaking point and prayed for an answer—for help to overcome his addiction. 

Two months later, he was in an all Native American treatment center in San Francisco and has never turned back. From there, his path on the red road joined up with others using Native American and indiginous spiritual practices to help those on the path of recovery.

“I remember like when I first walked into treatment for the very first time, what kept me there was hearing the stories from other native men who were just like me, like, that's truly what kept me there,” Rivera said.

Now in recovery for 16 years, Rivera is the CEO and director for Generation Red Road, whose mission statement is “to revitalize and promote inter-generational healing by utilizing Indigenous teachings that provide harmony for individuals, families and communities.”

Ashanti Moritz, the outreach director of the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes' Warrior Spirit Recovery Center, said storytelling is a pillar of many Native communities and is instrumental in both communicating the need for help and changing the narrative of addiction.

“They say that addiction is unlike any other disease because it is the inside dialogue,” said the descendent of the Makah Nation, Tlingit and Shuswaup tribes. “The entire dialogue when you have addiction is very horrendous, like it's this ongoing discussion with it. 'You're not good enough, you can't do that, nothing is worth it.' And it's pretty torturous to have, so when you learn to become sober, you have to learn how to redirect those thoughts and redirect your habit.”

But by tapping into that resource, she said it can not only make recovery easier, it can also address some of the generational trauma inflicted on families and individuals.

“Storytelling builds your character, and it builds your self esteem, your self worth and your place in the community to generational trauma, where all of that was taken away,” she said. “It was taken from you. So you don't have that now. So now there's like, ‘well, what goes there? what belongs there?’ And that's going to be what you experienced from your community. And if the whole community is sick. You're going to have a lot of sickness in that inside dialogue.”

The community aspect is why Michelle Chapoose— Utah State University’s Tribal Opioid Resource Center Coordinator— said it’s important for tribal members to be involved with recovery efforts in their area.

“The beauty about a story is, depending on the listener, they're going to relate at different levels or get different concepts from that story. So somebody could be telling a story, and four different people will be listening to it, but there'll be four different interpretations,” said the Ute member and substance use disorder counselor. 

“Sometimes I think we are some people that can kind of get blinded by the fact ‘Oh, Native American people are storytellers. I'm going to tell a story.’ Like, no, you've got to understand, really got to understand, the story that you're telling, and the different lessons and the purposes and be able to when the client relates to that and share that with you. You’ve got to be able to, you know, know the story enough that it's like, ‘OK, yeah, I can see where you got that,’ now, and then it's like you allow that person to expand because it's about their knowledge and their interpretation.”

Some tribal practices are location-specific, such as using sweat lodges — one of the seven ceremonies utilized by Lakota people and at Generation Red Road with Rivera.

“The sweat lodge is also a purification ceremony which is really, it's not the fix all,” Rivera said. “It's a way to purify our bodies, to release all those toxins that you can collect and gather over time. For recovery, it teaches discipline, it teaches us patience. It teaches us also that when we practice the red road, you can't have one foot on the red road, and one foot on the dark road. I mean, you can, but ultimately, you just hurt yourself. And then you also might hurt other people around you.”

Though not every tribe uses the same ceremonies, Rivera said it’s important to offer different options for those searching for spiritual connection as recovery is not a one-size-fits-all practice.

“My recovery doesn't look like it did 16 years ago, my recovery doesn't look like you did five years ago, you know, my recovery has really evolved into what it is today,” he said. “My recovery is in a circle today, my red road is circular. And it's constantly growing and evolving into something bigger and greater.”