A Native Community Sobers Up

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The following is from the latest Box 459.

What it was like: In the early 1970s, the Shuswap community of Alkali Lake in north-central British Columbia was devastated by alcoholism. By their own admission, the devastation touched 100 percent of their native community — the impact felt by children, parents, husbands and wives.

A once hard-working people now lived in a village strewn with the refuse of alcoholism: broken-down cars, untended houses, windows covered with cardboard, furniture broken and dirty, and the pervasive spirit of sadness presiding over it all like a cloud.

As far back as the elders can remember there was no use of alcohol on the reserve before 1940. But just before World War II, a general store was set up at Alkali Lake by a European immigrant to the area who gradually introduced alcohol into the community as a means of “softening people up” during the negotiation process for the furs that community members brought to the store to trade.

At first, only a few families were affected, but once alcohol entered the community system, a gradual deterioration of the health and well-being of the people followed. Compounding this problem, a whole generation of Alkali Lake young people was sent off to residential schools, where, while they were provided with educational opportunities, were separated from their parents, families and native customs — force-fed a set of European values and told over and over that their own cultural foundations were inferior, “primitive,” even sinful. And adding to the growing alienation and despair was the introduction of widespread physical and sexual abuse — extending by some estimates to nearly 90 percent of the youth population of Alkali Lake.

And so, across three decades, this native community of some four hundred people had become a waking nightmare for most of its members.

What happened: In 1972, after years of drunkenness and despair, one woman hit bottom and vowed to stop drinking. Inspired by her daughter’s refusal to come home with her until she sobered up, Phyllis put down the drink and reached out to Father Ed, an Oblate Brother and alcoholism counselor from nearby Williams Lake who had been trying to convince Alkali Lake people to come to an AA. meeting for several years. A few days later, Phyllis’ husband, Andy, also quit drinking and they soon began holding AA. meetings in their house with Father Ed. As far as they knew Andy and Phyllis were the only two non-drinking people in the entire community.

A year later, Andy and Phyllis were still sober, celebrating their anniversary with a cake provided by Father Ed, and slowly, over the next seven years, a handful of people stopped drinking and began working with Phyllis and Andy to restore some measure of health to the people of Alkali Lake. In a sure sign that even through their alcoholism and addictions the people of the community wanted something better for themselves, they elected Andy as Chief of the reserve in 1972, shortly after he stopped drinking.

Using his newfound influence, Andy began to set the village on a course toward sobriety — expelling the bootleggers who had attached themselves to the community and encouraging people to seek treatment. One of the first steps taken by the newly elected Chief was to set up weekly alcohol awareness meetings. These gatherings were run by Alcohol and Drug Program staff from nearby Williams Lake, and consisted of presentations, discussions, films and tapes about the nature and impact of alcoholism on individual and family well-being. These regular meetings were later reorganized into an AA. group on the reserve, which was run entirely by the AA. members of Alkali Lake.

By the end of 1973 there were less than a dozen sober people in Alkali Lake. Then, in 1974, some 35 people went to treatment. A turning point had been reached. By the end of 1975, 40 percent of the community was sober. The process was by no means easy, but by 1979, 98 percent of Alkali Lake people completely abstained from the use of alcohol.

Critical to the community’s recovery was the reintroduc-tion of traditional Native culture, and a deliberate effort was made to revive traditional Native forms of spirituality and healing. Because much of the community’s own cultural resources had been lost during the dark years, traditional teachers from other communities were asked to come to Alkali Lake in order to help the people rediscover their indigenous identity and spirituality. Through this process, the use of the sacred pipe and sweat lodge was reintroduced, and these cultural resources became powerful instruments helping many Alkali Lake people find their way back to sobriety and a path of wellness.

The community’s story of recovery soon became a model for other tribal communities overcome by alcoholism, and in 1986 the people of Alkali Lake told their story to the world in a film titled The Honor of All: The Story of Alkali Lake, which details the community’s devastation, its downfall, and ultimate transformation.

A.A. meetings, adapted to fit the community’s reality, were a critical rallying point for many people, providing a therapeutic as well as a spiritual outlet. And such cultural activities as sweat-lodge ceremonies, powwows, and healing circle meetings became commonplace. For others, involvement in church-based activities, rodeo, or outdoor pursuits such as hunting, fishing and horseback riding were important. A recreation center was opened, a hockey rink was developed, a summer baseball league was organized, and many alcohol-free parties, dances and social gatherings were held, all to provide people with healthy environments that would support their recovery processes.

What it is like now: The story of Alkali Lake is not a fairy tale in which everyone lives happily ever after, as the impact of alcoholism, alienation and abuse reverberates still. As one member of the Serenity Group — the A.A. group that meets on the reserve — shared recently, “I was taken away at five years old, me and my sister. And given to a white couple. The father was mean. They shaved off our hair, and I had a lot of anger at my mom and dad because it felt like they gave us away. So I used alcohol to ease my pain.

“I went to treatment in 1988, in Victoria, British Columbia. The first two weeks I didn’t go to the A.A. meetings, but after that I tried it. I thought A.A. was for old people.

“But slowly I began to talk about some of the things that were going on in my life — the anger, the fear, the spiritual stuff.

“For me, I had been abused when I was young and I began to work through it in A.A. with the Steps. And as a result, I have more spirituality today; I’m a better father to my children today.”

So, recovery is still taking place in Alkali Lake — for oldtimers and newcomers alike.

“It’s been almost 10 months since I sobered up and I take in almost three meetings a week,” says Henry J., one of the newcomers to the group. “For quite some time when I was drinking I was pretty wrapped up in my own world. I knew there was sobriety around Alkali Lake, but I was apart from it, dealing with my own problems, not thinking about anybody else.

“But sobriety has really benefited me, especially with my family, and now everything seems to be falling into place. Without meetings, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Says Freddy J., one of the group’s oldtimers, about the sobriety that began to develop in Alkali Lake, “I was about the tenth person to have it. Andy and Phyllis are still around and some of the original members are still hanging in.

“We started slow, and in about 1983 things started moving pretty fast, and in the time between ’72 and ’83 our community went from 100 percent drinking to 90 percent sober. But sobriety and healing didn’t go hand-in-hand, the healing came after the sobriety — healing from grief. We lost quite a few members of our community to alcoholism, and we saw a lot of devastation and death coming in all forms: murder, suicide, fire, infants dying, elders dying, and I guess somehow, through a miracle of a higher power, people started going to alcohol treatment and then from there it became stronger and many individuals, once exposed to the healing, began to work on themselves.

“The group is still growing today, with young people coming in,” says Freddy. “We’re still here.”

The group also hosts the Esk’etemc A.A. Roundup that happens each July. “This coming July will be our 40th anniversary,” notes Ken J., another of the group’s old-timers, “and we have a New Year’s Day celebration that this year was our 41st.”

The Roundup regularly attracts people from all over the globe. “Some come ahead of time just to help out and some don’t even want to leave,” says Ken. “This year we had close to 600 people, some from as far away as Atlanta, and a couple of years ago we had some people from Japan. Last year we had a lady from Russia.”

Trish L., a past delegate from the BC/Yukon Area, and a recent visitor to the Roundup adds, “From the sobriety birthday meeting where local milestones over the past year are celebrated, to the call-up meetings, to the beautiful dinner — pride in the success of the individuals and of the success of the community absolutely shines through.

“This year there was a group of interns from St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver there to observe as part of their addiction training — a great Cooperation With the Professional Community connection that has been forged over the years. Everywhere I looked, there was pride and joy. It was remarkable and humbling.”

Monica M., another attendee of many roundups at Alkali Lake, was working in the area when the film The Honor of All made its debut in 1986. “I had the privilege of attending the premiere showing of the film,” she says, because of the work she was doing with a nearby school district.

“The evening was a profound experience of hope and honesty. They held a community feast. There were so many people they had two showings, filling the school gym each time. Then the film. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place when it was done. I will never forget the acknowledgments they gave to the individuals who had supported the development of A.A. in the community. The evening ended with a friendship dance. Everyone shook the hand of everyone there. What a feeling of unity, of common purpose! I was early in my sobriety. What an impact it had on me; if they could do it, then just maybe I could, too.

“Shortly after, I moved away from Williams Lake, but have gone back six times to attend the Esk’etemc Roundup. Camping together adds a wonderful dimension, particularly of unity and love of life. It’s so encouraging to see the children playing, comfortable with the A.A. setting. The spirit of joy, family, community, and outreach is evident.

“The Esk’etemc members are generous in explaining their culture. One year, I was privileged to participate in a sweat with a group of women. The leader introduced us to the connection they have with their ancestors, the universe, the spirit of everyone present.”

“A.A. has been a really big part of my life, my sobriety and my healing,” says Irene J., a longtime member of the Serenity Group. “Over the last 38 years, A.A. has really stabilized me, where I know I can come here and get the support I need.

“What I’ve learned is that sobriety doesn’t bring automatic happiness. There are bumps and challenges along the way. We had three suicides within our family and had to look at things like sexual abuse and incest, which were really difficult at times. But I was able to use the Steps and deal with a lot of it.

“I also really believe in having a higher power or something greater than myself, ’cause I know I’m not that great. And I believe in using some of our traditional ceremonies along with A.A. When you think back to our history, long before contact with other cultures, when there were stresses, our people had successful ways of dealing with them. So what we’ve been doing is looking at how we can use those similar methods today.

“When we look at the sweat-lodge ceremony, it has a lot of components that can assist us. Number one is safety — when we go into the sweat lodge there’s safety. There’s also security. There’s trust. Whatever is said and done stays in there. And there’s the freedom where I can say whatever I want, talk about whatever I want, and I’ll still be accepted when I leave there. It’s similar to A.A., where we all have that same feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and we are together in it.

“And after dealing with all those demons — all those skeletons in my closet, I’ve come to see it’s not that bad after all. There’s nothing I can do to go back and change the things that have happened in my life, but I can change how I see it and how I deal with it today. The power that I have is what I can do today.”

And so it goes, in Alkali Lake — and in the A.A. world beyond.

 

To download latest issue of the quarterly A.A. GSO newsletter, click here.

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