Sobriety Movement Stands To Liberate Future Generations Of Native Americans

THE recent ``clean and sober'' celebrations that ushered in the New Year, including a huge gathering at Seattle Center, are powerful symbols of society's growing awareness of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

Yet, on the outer edges of all the non-alcoholic festivities, public-service announcements warning against drunken driving, and widely publicized do-it-yourself Breathalyzer machines in cocktail lounges, another, quieter revolution is taking place.

A sobriety movement is sweeping Indian country from Alaska to Florida, and with it is a renewed pride in Indian cultures and tribal self-determination. And, as with much of the social and political activism in Native America, tribes in the Pacific Northwest are in the forefront of the movement.

Two Puget Sound area Indian tribes held New Year's Eve powwows that celebrated both sobriety and Native American culture: the Suquamish Tribe, near Poulsbo, and the Nisqually Tribe, northeast of Olympia, publicly honored recovering alcoholics for their years of sobriety and commitment to helping other alcoholics recover. At least 30 people at the Nisqually powwow came forward to be recognized for sobriety that ranged in length from three weeks to 72 years.

For years, these people were part of the grim statistics of Indian alcoholism: The federal Indian Health Service and tribal alcoholism professionals estimate 75 percent of all Indian families have at least one alcoholic member, and that nearly 100 percent have been affected in some way by alcoholism. The rate of American Indian accidental deaths, homicides, suicides and incidents of domestic violence - almost always fueled by alcohol - is much higher than the national average, as is the rate of death by alcohol-related diseases, such as cirrhosis and heart disease.

Anthropologists and medical professionals have debated for years the reasons for Indians' susceptibility to alcoholism, without reaching a consensus. But many Native Americans believe it is attributable to a combination of genetic, cultural and political factors: Unlike European peoples, American Indians have been exposed to alcohol for only the last 400 years, giving them no time to develop a physical tolerance to its effects; deliberately being displaced and exterminated; and often alcohol itself was used to gain unfair advantage over Native Americans in economic transactions.

Over the last 15 years, many Indian tribes have developed their own alcoholism programs, which range in sophistication from weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to fully accredited residential treatment and recovery centers. But a watershed in the American Indian sobriety movement had been the release of an award-winning film, ``The Honour of All.''

Produced by Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas of Issaquah, the film chronicles the struggle and eventual victory over alcoholism by the Shuswap Band of Alkali Lake, British Columbia. The disease had ravaged an estimated 95 percent of the tribe's adult members. After a

Pacific Northwest tribes are in the forefront of the movement.

15-year effort that started with one woman, today the village is 95 percent sober, and its members now conduct training for tribes throughout the U.S. and Canada.

A barometer of the sobriety movement's impact is a recent decision by leaders of the 4,000-member National Indian Education Association to have its annual conference alcohol-free.

Other efforts that are escalating the momentum of the growing Native American sobriety movement:

-- The ``Red Road'' approach to sobriety, development by Gene Thin Elk, a Lakota, emphasizes traditional Indian values in regaining spiritual and physical balance and health. Thin Elk's workshops have drawn overflow crowds throughout the country.

-- The fledging National Association of Native American Adult Children of Alcoholics (NANAACOA) has been formed by Seattle Indian Health Board leaders to address the needs of alcoholism's other victims: individuals who are not necessarily alcoholics themselves, but grew up in alcoholic families. NANAACOA leaders expected about 200 people to attend its first national conference last summer in Montana, but almost 800 people showed up - a testament to an idea whose time has come.

-- High-visibility sobriety marches and rallies are taking place in Indian communities across the country, most notably among the tribes of the Sioux Nation. Lakota men on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota have formed an organization called Dads Against Drunk Driving, and have called on other Indian men to stand with them in strengthening the contemporary role of men in tribal societies. Organizers on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation have begun an annual ``Sobriety Day'' that includes a 17-mile walk; more than 250 people turned out for last year's walk.

-- Many tribal alcoholism programs have taken an activist role in promoting community sobriety, including the Puyallup Tribal Treatment Center in Tacoma, which organizes an annual sobriety march through the city's East Side. Tribal youth have had a key role in organizing the event, and in the most recent march, one young woman expressed pride in her sobriety by carrying a sign that proclaimed: ``100 percent Indian, zero percent alcohol.''

And the Puyallup Tribe's Chief Leschi High School was one of 41 schools nationwide - and the only school, public or private, in the state of Washington - selected by the U.S. Department of Education as a ``drug-free school.''

The Anchorage Daily News, in its Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Native alcoholism, ``A People in Peril,'' calls the Indian sobriety movement ``a revolution of hope.'' Leaders say it is a revolution that already is changing the face of Indian country, and if successful, stands to liberate future generations of Native American people.

Nancy Butterfield, a Chippewa Indian, writes on Native American affairs. She lives in the Tacoma area.