American Indians and Recovery
• November 2021 •
From Juan Navarro, Executive Director
Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse
American Indians and Recovery
The pilgrim story retold every Thanksgiving typically reduces American Indians to a bit part in our nation’s history. The indigenours people of the United States are much more — their story is one of persecution and resilience. American Indians were targeted from the time Europeans first set foot on American soil, hungry for resource-rich Indian land. Through the years, our government authorized over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, including genocide, removal, assaults on language and culture, and mandatory boarding schools for youth.
More than 570 federally-recognized tribes reside in the U.S. and these people are survivors, despite the odds. A unique and ancient culture, American Indians continue to face challenges today. Specifically, social isolation, poverty, lack of healthcare, and limited recovery-based services are contributing to higher rates of substance abuse, addiction and alcoholism in American Indian people. Here are some of the facts:
- American Indians make up 1% of the U.S. population, but comprise 2.5% of people in behavioral health treatment;
- Nearly 25% of American Indians report binge drinking in the past month;
- American Indians are more likely to report drug abuse in the past month than any other ethnic group;
- American Indians are 82% more likely to die of suicide than other races;
- Roughly 30% of American Indians live below poverty level; and
- American Indian life expectency is 5.5 years less than other races.
American Indians are more likely to need behavioral healthcare than persons of any other ethnic group. And treatment means culturally-responsive care that addresses cultural perspectives and historical trauma.
Some of the practices being incorporated into behavioral health treatment for American Indians are meditation using smudging (burning sage, cedar and sweetgrass), relearning native songs sung during dances that convey stories of ancestor hardships and victories, Talking Circles where participants sit in a circle, listen deeply, and speak in turn from the heart, and Sweat Lodge purification ceremonies that represent the womb of Mother Earth — a sacred place to ask for healing, forgiveness, hope, vision, to give thanks, or anything else participants need during their journey of change.
Mary Little Bear
“When I was adopted at (age) two, my name was Mary S. I don’t remember before that, but I know I always felt different. At 13, my parents told me I was an adopted Native American. Now I understood why I felt I didn’t belong. Drinking was what I did to cope with my feelings, but it brought other life problems. Things got pretty bad by the time I was 17. I was depressed and cutting to make me feel better. When I got pregnant, I went into rehab, but I sort of relapsed and when my baby was born they took her away. After that, I tried again. Out of luck, this time I got a Native American counselor. She was really interested in my heritage and started talking to me about how strong we Indian people are. I didn’t feel it, but I listened. She got me into a local group that did sweats. Also singing and drumming. Around that time, something changed in me. I started belonging. These are my people and we are all in recovery. Today, I’m Mary Little Bear, a clean and sober Native American in recovery– proud and teaching my daughter our traditions.”
SPOTLIGHT – THE EVIDENCE IS IN:
Culturally-Adapted Treatment for American Indians
American Indians and Alaska Natives have consistently experienced disparities in access to healthcare services, funding, and resources, as well as in the quality and quantity of services, equitable treatment outcomes, and health education and prevention services.
To address need for American Indian behavioral equity, providers must first understand how clients perceive their own cultural identity and how they view the role of traditional practices in treatment. Not all clients recognize the importance of culture or perceive need for traditional practices in their recovery. Nonetheless, as an industry, it’s essential that behavioral healthcare be ready to address the spectrum of clients’ cultural identity and related needs.
Helping our clients develop and/or maintain ties to their native cultures can prevent and treat substance use and mental disorders. Connection to the healing practices of their American Indian communities can help individuals reclaim the strengths inherent in traditional teachings, practices, and beliefs; beginning their journey to walking in balance and harmony.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration tells us that effective treatment for American Indians should:
- incorporate American Indian values of cooperation, collectivism, and harmony;
- use modesty and humility as a basis for treatment delivery;
- respect personal freedom and individual autonomy;
- revere American Indian traditions and elders;
- provide a spiritual orientation to all aspects of life;
- cooperate with nature; and
- avoid appropriation of American Indian culture — find a cultural representative with whom to partner.
Hear how: One Man Got His Spirit Back in Recovery