Native Americans strive for health against alcohol, chaos and trauma
Condensed by Native Village

A 10-month-old girl takes a nap in NARA's child development center. Her 18-month-old brother also stays in the center while their parents go through drug and alcohol treatment.

Oregon: Pearl Scott lifts the baby from the crib, just like someone did for her 20 years ago. At that time, Pearl's own mom was going through through addiction treatment at Portland's Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest..

"The counselors here remember me running down the hall with my mom chasing me," she says.

Scott has come full circle. Today she works for NARA,  a addiction treatment center which is operated by and for Native Americans. She helps care for 10 children, all 5 years old and younger, of parents in treatment.

NARA is among the few Native residential programs that allow parents to keep their preschoolers with them during rehab. About 10 children were in the center this spring. Last year, 8 babies were born to mothers in rehab.

"We've had grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters in treatment at the same time," says Scott Buser, NARA's treatment director. Buser has been sober for 20 years.

Alcohol and drug use statistics for Portland area Natives mirror national figures: 31% vs. 25% for all Americans. Death caused by alcohol or related liver disease is over 200% higher for tribal people in the Portland area.

Alcohol addiction is a destructive force in Local Native Health

Death caused by alcohol or related liver disease is over 200% higher.
Domestic violence is high.
Native women have high rates of rape, unintended and teen pregnancies, and risky sexual encounters.
Suicide among Natives, ages 15-24, is the 2nd leading cause of death.
Suicide rates are 300% higher than the general population.
Asthma rates are 200% higher.
Addiction reinforces crushing poverty,affecting almost 50% of children and nearly all single mothers in the metro area.
20% Native children in Multnomah County are in foster care.

Government policies that separated Native people from their land, family and customs made them vulnerable to alcohol and drugs. That disconnect is even worse for urban Natives thinly scattered across major cities. Since 30,000 Native Americans live in the Portland area. NARA houses their residential treatment center in an area with high concentrations of Native people.

The 70-bed residential treatment program runs on a shoestring budget-- about $100 per patient per day. Treatment includes months of group therapy, classes, counseling and traveling the Red Road, 12 steps for Indians based on Alcoholics Anonymous. It also urges residents to connect to their culture.

Profile of NARA residents 
Based on 111 participants, from Aug. 2004-July 2010 

Ages 21-49
69 women, 42 men
80% married or lived as married
70% with children under age 21
90% tribe members; 9% reservation born
75% homeless within past 90 days
61% had prior mental health treatment
had family history of substance abuse
28% on psychiatric medication when admitted
70% have been beaten or attacked with weapons
51% completed NARA's program vs. 42% for other Native residential treatment
86% stayed sober of the 58% who completed 1-year follow-ups.
$1,900,000 was the total cost for treatment in 2007-08 fiscal year.

Addictions "are grounded in historical and modern day trauma," says Jackie Mercer, NARA's chief executive officer. Addiction results when people struggle to escape trauma that's knocked them out of balance. She says U.S. efforts to relocate Native people, ban their languages, cultural and spiritual practice, force children into boarding schools, sterilize women and terminate tribes have left Native people spiritual strangers in their own lands.

Philip Archambault, traditional cultural director for NARA, has been sober for over 40 years. He tells residents,
"You need to know where your anger comes from to get beyond it."

Trauma hit Philip Archambault, member of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, early and often. His mother died three weeks after his birth. After seven years in an orphanage, he was taken in by an abusive, alcoholic couple on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

"They gave me my first glass of beer when I was about 7 or 8," he said.

By 12, Phillip had a drinking problem. His adoptive mother abused him. By high school, his anger exploded in drunken fights on weekends. While playing football, he says, "I was out there trying to break people's legs."

"No Indians Allowed" signs hung on some restaurant doors in nearby Bismarck, N.D. At sporting events, adults would curse him and his teammates, spit on them, tell them to go back to the reservation.

"I figured if they are going to hate me, I'm going to hate them, which is wrong."

Jenny Bird, 26, hugs a friend after graduating from
NARAs residential treatment program.

NARA opened in 1970 solely to address alcoholism. Today it offers other mental, social and medical services. Residents cite the cultural connection as the greatest factor in helping them with recovery,  Mercer says.

"It is a question of becoming more in tune with their identity," she says. "Culture is about values; it teaches a way of life."

An Oregon Health & Science University study in 2010 found that 51% of NARA residents complete treatment, compared with a national average of 42% of Native Americans in residential treatment.