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KICKING THE HABIT

Team uses culture to wage war on opioid abuse

 

By Louis A. Arana Jr.

NativeWellness.Life assistant editor

 

With zeal and outreach, Lacey Gonzales and Rebecca Bright Wings wage war on the opioid epidemic ravaging Montana’s urban Indigenous people.

They fight with an ancient and proven weapon. “Culture is our cure,” Gonzales said. “It’s our main path to having healthy, thriving and strong tribal communities.” 

The women’s mission is to instill a sense of cultural belonging and identity to people they meet. Two things some urban dwellers lack. To reconnect the not connected. Because addiction is a symptom of a lack of connection, Gonzales said.

What they didn’t expect was that their work would change them, too.

The duo run the Tribal Opioid Response program for the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council for 11 tribes. A two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funds their effort. Some tribes also got grants to help people on reservations.

The women show people how opioids harm users and those around them. Make them aware of opioids’ dangers in hopes of preventing overdoses. They arm people with facts, and a cultural support network, so they say no to drugs.

 

Just one dose

Synthetic opioids are killing Americans in record numbers, in every state. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it seized enough fentanyl in 2021 to give every American a lethal dose. Often mixed or impure, some drugs are pure poison.

Fentanyl is the worst. One dose can kill. “It’s bad … very detrimental to Indian communities.” Some 107,000 Americans died from a drug overdose from January 2021 through January 2022, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stats show. An alarming 67% of the deaths involved synthetic opioids.

Scarier, the overdose death rate for American Indian/Alaska Native people was 39% higher. Montana has a 15.6% (per 100,000 people) overdose death rate. And had a 116% rise in fentanyl-related deaths from 2019-2020.

Native lives are at risk, Gonzales said. A Montanan with Native blood, she directs the TOR program from Billings, Mont. She and Bright Wings host events to reach out. To provide a community connection. Events where people meet and make new friends. It’s a healthy way to learn of their culture and develop skills.

“Just having someone be attentive and caring, who shows you that you matter,” is powerful medicine, Gonzales said. “And it helps them to identify with their Indigenous roots.” 

A “culturally relevant and informed prevention, protective and harm-reducing” is the approach the team uses to share their vital message, Gonzales said. 

They want to reach people “before they go down the road of substance abuse,” Bright Wings said. Gonzales’s “right hand,” she’s an enrolled Assiniboine of Montana’s Fort Belknap Reservation Aaniiih Nakoda Nation. Though an urban dweller, she’s in tune with reservation chatter. Some highschoolers there nearly died from a fentanyl overdose. “They thought they were smoking marijuana, but it was laced with fentanyl,” she said.

It’s the same in urban Billings, Bright Wings said. “My son goes to West High — I hear at least once a month about children or highschoolers overdosing on fentanyl.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The word

So, the women hit the road on their “culture is prevention” tour. They bring people together at community events to spread a culture-based, drug awareness and prevention message. They use holistic medicine wheel teachings to help them decide activities and how to present them. 

The focus is less on substance abuse and more “on the strength of connecting to your cultural background and how that can help keep you grounded as a person,” Bright Wings said.

They provide healthy cultural habits and coping skills. For help, the women turn to tribal elders for knowledge and guidance. And they urge parents to bring their children.

“We instill healthy habits, especially with the younger population.” Gonzales said.

Events offer a cultural blast. People learn culture and crafts. They make ribbon skirts and quillwork. String beads and make dreamcatchers. There was a Friday night round dance. Next, there were more crafts and breast plate and shield making. In the summer of 2022, TOR held large events “in all the major urban areas we serve,” Bright Wings said.

The duo teams with the Northern Cheyenne-founded Native Pride team. It offered its Good Road of Life training in Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Butte. Gonzales and Bright Wings took the four-day training. To instill hope and pride is their mission.

“People will walk into the light of goodness and beauty through a healing journey utilizing Native traditions, culture and spirituality,” it says on the pride team’s Facebook page.

Another ally is the Montana State University-Billings Native American Achievement Center. It helps students deal with college life stresses and being away from home. And it provides items to improve student wellness, like sage for smudging and crafting items. 

More events are coming. They all gush with “Nativeness,” traditional vibes, values, customs, knowledge, spirituality, food and pride in language and culture.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Teaching the teacher

That’s a lot of connecting. A lot of getting your Native back. So, like smudge, it rubbed off on urbanites Gonzales and Bright Wings, who live in Billings. 

“I’m almost 50 now and finally coming to peace with myself,” Gonzales said. The TOR tour helped her get there. She grew up with her family knowing about her Native roots. Learned to be proud of her heritage. And she knew where she and her family came from.

But she couldn’t become an enrolled member of a tribe. That hurt. “You don’t count,” were high-school taunts. “I went through a period where I was unsure of my identity,” Gonzales said. But her work has helped “me reconnect with what I grew up being told.”

Bright Wings once thought she wasn’t “a good Native.” She’d lived off the reservation for 30 years. At Fort Belknap, “I didn’t grow up with a culturally based family life.” Her children grew up in Billings and didn’t know who they were. One day a teacher told her daughter she was Native American. Her daughter replied she wasn’t, though she’s an enrolled tribal member.

It was like someone pulled the trigger, Bright Wings said. “Gosh, I’m not doing my job teaching my children where they come from.

“This job helped me reconnect,” Bright Wings said. “So, I can help my children connect.”

What they learned will make the work Gonzales and Bright Wings do more powerful. They don’t have to sell the message. They live it.

“We know how helpful it’s been for us,” Gonzales said. “We want to empower people with that same kind of increased self-awareness.”

It may help stop opioids from killing Native people.

PREVIOUS FEATURES

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Three Indigenous chefs share passions for Indigenous cooking

By NativeWelleness.Life staff

Photos courtesy of chefs

Three Indigenous chefs from different locations around the world share a similar journey in food sovereignty. They transitioned from learning about cooking to teaching others the value of preparing dishes rooted in Indigenous ingredients and sharing knowledge with future generations.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chef Krysia L. Villon

Tribal affiliation: Quechua/Andean, Peru, South America.

Years a chef: 12

Current: Chef Owner of Chiqui’s Kitchen and a Boston University online facilitator.

Experience: As a Peruvian American, I always loved our food. I studied and cooked in Lima early in my career and I could see that the foundation of many dishes was built from deeply-rooted Indigenous ingredients. Later, my obsession with quinoa led me to research Peruvian Indigeneity as expressed on the plate. 

What are you trying to do as a chef? I hope to continue to explore and teach about Indigenous Andean foods and their origins in culinary programs as well as grow my small business.

What are your future goals as a chef? I hope to open a brick-and-mortar space where I not only can feature Indigenous Andean prepared foods but also sell a select offering of Indigenous packaged foods and offer food demos as well.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself. When I was 5, I had a recurring dream: Flying through the clouds, I landed on a mountain with large terraces covered in green. At 13, I saw a poster of Machu Picchu (Peru) and realized it was the place from my dream that no one in my family had ever been.

Web address of restaurant: www.chiquiskitchen.com.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chef Samuel Anglin

Tribal affiliation: Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation, Michigan.

Years a chef: 20 years

Current: Recovery coach, case manager, group facilitator and Indigenous chef.

Experience: I started working in restaurants at age 15 as a dishwasher and worked my way up. After culinary school I started working for my tribe at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort (Michigan), where we received a four-star rating. In 2018, I got involved with our Native farmers market preparing samples of healthy Indigenous foods. I began attending nationwide traditional food summits learning about different food, tools, and cooking techniques of the local tribes.

What are you trying to do as a chef? Spread knowledge about our traditional food systems, showing others how to heal to our bodies with these foods, and bringing a sense of pride to our lives. We are the answers to our ancestors’ prayers, and we have a responsibility to pass this knowledge on to the next generation.

What are your future goals as a chef? To bring awareness to mino-bimaadiziwin (the way of a good life) by spreading my knowledge of traditional food. I would love to travel to different tribes and help promote healthy living within their recovery communities, so please reach out if you’re interested. 

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself. I was on a “Let’s Make A Deal” episode May 3, 2021, and won! I was able to promote Indigenous food to Wayne Brady who was very interested about learning what Native foods were and pitched me the idea of a Native food truck. 

Podcast: Red Road to Enlightenment Podcast. Youtube Channel: “Ancestral Food Videos and The Red Road Podcast.”

Contact email: ancestralfoodpodcast@gmail.com

 
 
 
Chef Elena Terry

Tribal Affiliation:  HoChunk, Wisconsin.

Years a chef: Professionally, five. Ceremonial cooking, 35 years.

Currently: Executive chef, Wild Bearies.

Experience: Always enjoyed cooking at ceremonies and in our community for special events. I knew the value of our Indigenous ingredients and I knew how they made me feel when I cooked with them. From a young age, I was taught about the connection we were supposed to have with these foods and that connection grows every day. I love that I’m constantly learning. I’m not ashamed to say I like to process things, I mean, butchering wild game is my specialty, but I also enjoy preserving foods and agricultural harvest in various ways. I transitioned to cooking primarily with our Native ingredients several years ago, and the more I’m around them, the more I want to be around them.

What am I trying to do as a chef? Help my community find their definition of “food is medicine.” For me, that is honoring the ingredients by creating these beautiful, delicious, intention-filled bites. For someone else that medicine may come in the cultivation of ancestral crops or seed saving, or in the construction of the garden fencing. However that medicine comes, I want our community to see that we all have that connection somehow, and it’s beautiful. 

My future goals as a chef?  Do all I can to support the next generation of chefs that, from what I’ve seen, are inspired by our traditional food systems on a whole new level. 

Interesting fact about myself? I love going to tribal communities to learn about their traditional foods, from the knowledge keepers, and honor the work that is being done to reclaim and continue that connection to our ancestors. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. 

Contact: www.wildbearies.org, wildbearieset@outlook.com 

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Unspoken Words keeps it real

Former drug users’ podcast uses humor to encourage sobriety

 

By Orville Desjarlais Jr.

NativeWellness.Life editor in chief

 

Josiah Hugs of the Apsáalooke tribe greets me and my sister, Debbie, at the front door of the Billings First Church in Billings, Mont. It’s closed and empty. Our footsteps echo as we follow him through empty hallways, upstairs and around dark corners until we get lost. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, we have no bread crumbs.

We eventually end up in a tiny room with rickety chairs, office supplies, and other odds and ends. It appears this podcast team is on a shoestring budget. Half the room looks like it’s used for storage and the other half barely has room for a large, round table. Furry and professional-grade microphones affixed to a tabletop stick out like Rolex watches in a Dollar Store.

From behind a microphone, Apsáalooke and Nakota tribe’s J.C. Beaumont rises to greet us. He jokes that we can’t take his picture because it will steal his soul. He provides a little more background information until the third team member, Randy Beardon’twalk, also from the Apsáalooke tribe, walks in. The Unspoken Words podcast team is now complete.

Besides being Indigenous Montanans, they have other things in common: None has a broadcasting or podcast background, they’re recovering drug addicts and they have a story to tell.

Helping others

Their stories about drug dependency help them relate to their listeners in the throes of addiction.

“Our main goal is to bring sobriety to as many people as we can, particularly Native people,” said Beaumont, from Pryor, Mont. He runs the soundboard for the production.

“We get to tell our stories, share our experiences and offer strength and hope.

“Our listeners connect with us because they’re hearing people who look like them, talk like them, who have similar backgrounds,” Beaumont said.

Podcast crew ringleader Hugs—of Fort Belknap, Mont.—agrees.

“We’re just three rez kids with a tape recorder talking about stuff,” said Hugs, Crow, from Arrow Creek District, Pryor, Mont. “If people are having a hard time with their addictions and come across our podcast, start laughing and get serious with us, then we’ve found a way to reach those people.”

 

Humorous approach

Like Hugs said, all three make others laugh. Beardon’twalk, from Lodge Grass but living in Billings, is the crew’s self-proclaimed funny man.

Here’s how we meet him.

Beardon’twalk enters the room and introduces himself.

“My name is Beardon’twalk,” he says.

Then he spells it out: B-E-A-R-D-O-N-T-W-A-L-K.

“There’s also an apostrophe between the N and the T.”

“Oh, is there?” questions Hugs. “I’ve been telling people there isn’t.”

“That’s fine,” Beardon’twalk said. “I can’t put the apostrophe on a driver’s license or anything.”

The banter continues.

“If you can't put an apostrophe on your name, how come there's other people with weird names and they have apostrophes and hyphens?” Hugs asked.

“I don’t know! Want to see my driver’s license? It doesn’t have an apostrophe in there,” Beardon’twalk exclaimed.

Beaumont said it would be easier just to call him the Algerian Nightmare because it’s one of the names he uses on the podcast.

This, all over the spelling of a name Beardon’twalk has used his entire life.

The three use humor like a tool, many times joking about themselves, or kidding one another, to get a point across. It’s doesn’t appear to matter. But it’s as somber as death itself.

“Even though we talk about serious things, many of which are life and death for a lot of people, including myself, we use humor,” Beaumont said. “We use it in our stories to entertain, stay sharp and to keep our listeners guessing. There’s a balance there.”

The trio tackle tough subjects like mental health, suicide prevention and the long road to staying drug-free or sober. Nothing is sugarcoated because their audience will instinctively know.

“We deal with a population that knows survival skills and can read people well,” Beardon’twalk said. “When we’re not genuine, they know it.”

As such, the three must “stay real.” They edit nothing out of their podcasts. What you hear is what you get. To keep it genuine, they must reveal their innermost thoughts and secrets to the world.

“This is me. Uncut and raw,” Beaumont said.

“We’re opening up our hearts and our souls,” Beardon’twalk added. “That’s what we’re giving up. And that’s hard to do. But you get what you give.”

“I show people that it’s OK to be vulnerable,” Beaumont said. “It’s OK to feel this way. When they hear Randy tell a story, they relate to that. When they hear Josiah share his experience, they can relate to that, too.”
When COVID-19 hit, the podcast tackled how the pandemic negatively affects their vulnerable listeners.

 

Pandemic fuels suicides and addiction

Hugs attends suicide prevention training periodically. Called Question, Persuade and Refer, the three steps teach how to spot suicide’s warning signs. They also show how to prevent it from happening.

At his last training, Hugs learned that young adults normally think about suicide now and then. It’s called suicide ideation.

“They just think about suicide as an option, but they don’t really plan to act it out,” Hugs explained.

He said a study found that suicide ideation jumped from 10% in 2019 to 25% in 2020, when the pandemic hit. Not only did suicide rates rise, but drug overdoses surged by nearly 31%, climbing to a record high, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stats show.

“And not only drug and alcohol abuse, but depression, loneliness, hopelessness --all these other things—were magnified by that isolation,” Beaumont pointed out.

Educating their community about the dangers of the pandemic is the team’s priority. Which means they must continue to ensure their podcast’s survival so they can continue to offer help and encouragement to their listeners.

Podcast survival, their survival

It’s been more than a year, since November 2021, that the team began borrowing equipment and learning how to podcast. Hugs is the only team member with a bit of experience. He was an emcee for birthday parties and powwows.   

The three work full-time but faithfully meet every week at the church to create the Thursday podcast. Sponsors like Riverstone Health and Barjon’s Books help with funding, and the Billings First Church donates the office space. Shure donated two of the professional microphones and offered the other two at half price, which another donor paid for.

“They believe in what we are doing,” Hugs said.

As we left, I remembered a story Beaumont told us when I didn’t have the tape recorder on. Eight years ago, he was deep into drugs. He got into trouble. Spent time in prison. He saw suicide as his only way out. When released from prison, he was off drugs, but the real challenge was staying sober.

Then he met Hugs and got involved with the Unspoken Words podcast. Beaumont said the podcasts continues to help give his life meaning—that of hope and usefulness.

Everyone on the podcast team says sobriety and staying drug free is a choice they consciously make every single day.

The podcast helps drug-dependent Natives and other listeners. Just like it helps the hosts.

 

The Unspoken Words broadcasts every Thursday. Google “Unspoken Words: A Native Podcast” and pick the app you wish to use. Contact the podcast team at unspoken.dubz@gmail.com

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