Rebirth: Perspective From Eric Villanueva of the Chippewa-cree tribe

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On November 29, 2017

This paper will examine the link between tribal cultural identity and substance abuse in the Native American community. It will also explore if a more appropriate culturally integrated approach for the treatment of this abuse would lead to a greater success rate than the programs in use for mainstream society. 

There are many elements that make up one’s cultural identity, the main being land base, language, and religious/spiritual beliefs. I have placed an emphasis on tribal identity because Native Americans are a tribal people. There are over five hundred tribes recognized by the federal government and many more that are not. These tribes living in groups of families or clans are very diverse. This diversity means that there are a variety of languages spoken and many different spiritual beliefs as well as ceremonies. A tribal cultural identity has many facets, it starts with one’s self and extends to family, clan, and tribe. It is focused around the beliefs that we are all related and the Earth is mother to all life. It stresses respect for all life, plants, animals, creatures that live in the waters, the ones that fly, and those that crawl and burrow in the Earth. Respect is given to all givers of life, the elders, children and elements of Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire. Traditional teachings are don’t lie, don’t cheat, and don’t steal, and to treat people how you would like to be treated. It is taught that words have power, to use them wisely, and to speak in a good way. In this way you will have a balanced life, living in harmony. 

It is well documented and common knowledge how North America’s indigenous people were displaced and forced from their lands. What may not be known is the role American Indian boarding schools played in the loss of cultural identity. In “Native American Education vs. Indian Learning: Still Battling Pratt after all these years”, authors Roppolo and Crow illustrate how, “Common practices of many schools have either directly or indirectly devalued native ways of life.” (Crow, pg. 12) Furthermore, they go on to tell how schools, copied from those used in colonial times to Christianize Indians, were used by the U.S. government to force the tribes to assimilate into Western culture. Men such as Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School in 1897, “believed Indian culture to be inferior to white culture: (Crow, pg. 5) His philosophy was to, “kill the Indian in him and save the man.” (Crow, pg. 5). To “civilize the Native children President Ulysses S. Grant recommended that they be sent away from their families and tribal communities,” to best achieve the total removal of cultural identity, which had always been the main goal of Native American education.” (Crow, pg. 5). This action “was to force the tribes to give up virtually all that was sacred and unique in their traditional lifestyles. (Crow, pg 6). In “American Indian boarding schools” Darkwind and Whisper to Me illustrate the ways Native children were forced to relinquish their cultural identity. “From the moment students arrived at school they could not ‘be Indian’ in any way.” (Darkwind, pg. 4) These children could no longer live in the way that they were accustomed to. They were forbidden their practice of native religions, could not wear their hair how they chose, not even their tribal clothes. The speaking of their tribal languages was also forbidden, everything that identified them as an Indian. Fred Beauvais, author of “American Indians and Alcohol” expounds on the effects these schools created. It is his assertion that the physical and mental abuses and punishments used to shape the children’s behavior, “spawned several generations of Indian people with limited parenting experience.” (Beauvais, pg 256). These children as adults were ill equipped to raise their own children. It was the lapse of cultural beliefs and guidance caused by the boarding school system that created the absence of a traditional model for conduct. There was now a void where ritual ceremony had once been integrated into their lives. This loss left them with the innate inability to obtain the teachings, spiritual guidance, wisdom and knowledge that had been passed through the venue of ceremony. One of the residual effects brought about by this loss was a healthy way in which to process their emotions, the cumulative effect of having a native population extremely vulnerable to substance abuse. It is easily seen that the causative effect of this loss of tribal cultural identity correlates directly with the substance abuse epidemic faced by the Native American community. There are many contributing factors that show the relationship between the loss of tribal cultural identity and substance abuse. To understand this, one must first examine the causes associated with substance abuse itself. People are vulnerable when they do not have an effective coping mechanism; they cannot deal with their unmet needs. Most problems arise from the loss of lack of self-esteem or lack of self-worth. People who are depressed are compelled at time to do self-destructive things in attempt to find relief for their problems. It is easy to say just how vulnerable the Native Americans were, overwhelmed by so much adversity. Fred Beauvais reinforces the concept that “people with psychological problems use alcohol to relieve certain symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or lack of self-esteem.” (Beauvais, pg. 255) There are many people of Native American descent who have the belief that their loss of tribal cultural identity is the main contributing factor associated with substance abuse. This use is primarily alcohol, which again reinforced by the research of Beauvais in “American Indians and Alcohol.” Native peoples had lost their lands, and the connection with Mother Earth at many sacred ceremonial sites. This loss of their ceremonial grounds was not conducive to their spiritual well being. They could no longer worship where and when they chose. Confusion associated with identity, the breakdown of family values, loss, the feeling that they were helpless, and anger are all things which escalated their susceptibility to substance abuse. These problems have to be addressed so the epidemic of substance abuse in the Native American population can be remedied. 

Prevention and treatment programs may seem to be a simple solution to the problem of substance abuse among Native Americans. However, this simple solution may prove to be not so simple after all. The same approach that is used in the treatment of mainstream society may not be as effective for use in the Native population. Fred Beauvais points out that “Efforts to prevent and treat alcohol problems among the American Indian population may be more effective if native beliefs and approaches are incorporated.” (Beauvais, pg. 253). If like in an equation there needs to be a balance, it stands to reason that if the loss of tribal cultural identity is indeed the major factor in the abuse problem, then a reclamation of said identity would contribute to lower rates of abuse. How does one reclaim tribal identity? What can bring together land, language, and spiritual beliefs? 

One possible solution is that of ceremony. Lee Irwin the author of “Walking the Line, Pipe, and Sweat Ceremonies in Prison” explains that “Understanding Native American religions is not an easy task. Partly, this is a matter of the rich complexity and diversity of Indigenous religious traditions, each embedded in its own community, language, and cultural norms. Partly, it is a matter of recognizing that the integrity of native spirituality is based in community relationships.” (Irwin, pg. 39) He goes on to talk about how the sweat lodge is a place of worship where one can go for purification. Irwin speaks with Lenny Foster in San Quentin who tells how “The sweat lodge is one of the oldest forms of purification and cleansing of body, mind, and spirit…a very profound therapy for insight into behavior, attitudes, responsibility, respect, and sobriety. It’s a place one comes to pray, sing, and meditate about his problems, or to seek blessings for family or loved ones.” (Irwin, pg. 51) This ceremony offers a great opportunity for a person who has lost their tribal cultural identity to reclaim it. 

The Native American sweat ceremony is a ritualistic ceremony common to every tribe indigenous to the United States. It is practiced so that one can be cleansed in body, mind, and spirit. It is a healing ceremony where balance and harmony can be found in prayer as well as the ability to give back. Practitioners pray for themselves, friends, family, and other participants. IN fact, prayers are offered to all relations. Teachings and wisdoms are shared to provide spiritual guidance and direction. All of these practices are done together in conjunction to facilitate a balanced and happy life, in short a rebirth. 

Many of the tenets that are practiced during the conduction of the sweat ceremony correspond directly with that of abstinence. Purification is synonymous with being clean or pure. The sweat ceremony is used to cleanse one’s self bodily as well as mentally and spiritually, helping one to be emotionally balanced. Many aspects of this ceremony relate directly with the treatment of substance abuse. Here are numerous ways, and how they correspond with the treatment of said abuse. 

When a person decides they would like to participate in the sweat ceremony, they need to know the protocol, the how and why, etc. This is accomplished by helping with the ceremony, along with the other participants. They cover the lodge, a dome shaped structure constructed of willows, with blankets and/or canvas. Inside of this lodge is where the ceremony will be conducted. They may be asked to help with the fire in which the rocks are heated for use in the lodge. It is a communal function where one will automatically find a support system and a sense of belonging. In this process one learns from experience, watching and having the opportunity to ask questions of other practitioners. The sweat ceremony is divided into four stages or “rounds” that coincide with the four stages of life, the four elements and various other aspects of religious significance. At the onset of the ceremony, herbs are burned to call the spirits, drive away negative energy, ask for blessings, and for protection. A person’s spirit guide or helper is called to help them with their walk or journey. One of the teachings of this first round is before you can help others you have to be able to help yourself. These both have a great deal to do with being clean. First and foremost a spirit guide or helper is of great significance. Many relate this guide or helper to one’s conscience. One gains insight and becomes aware of their behavior, thereby cultivating a moral compass if they are receptive to it. Secondly, in praying for oneself and asking for what they need to live a good life, they learn how to ask for help. Battling substance abuse, one of the hardest things to realize is that you need help and how to ask for it. Helping yourself helps you with your self-worth and self-esteem. In the second round or stage of life, one moves from birth and infancy to that of child and adolescence. In this round, they pray for their male relations and start to be mindful of others. Hearing prayers for others and each other, the participants know they are loved and cared for; they can see that people do care for them and are wiling to help. In knowing this helps with feelings of being vulnerable, lonely, lost, and overwhelmed. The Third round as an adult, you honor and pray for Mother Earth, female relations, all givers of life, children, little ones, and the ones to come. In praying for the women and children you think of family and how your actions affect them. This keeps one from doing things that are self-destructive and self-defeating. Learning sympathy, thinking of family and how what you do affects them, can help stop the breakdown of family. A healthy family with strong morals and values will directly combat substance abuse. In the fourth round, that of the elder, you pray for your ancestors and all those who have come before you. You honor them giving thanks for all that was left to you by them. This is your life, way of life, ceremonies, etc. By praying for the ones before you, the ones here now, and the ones to come, we can see ourselves in the circle of life. It lets you see and to realize that before you were even born, people were praying for you to have a good and happy life. In the sweat ceremony, having the ability to commune with the spirits combined with a spiritual cleansing gives one a profound sense of spiritual well being. Learning to be receptive to your spirit guide is another life skill and a tool that can be used to combat substance abuse. Suffering through the hurt gives you strength both mentally and physically. The ceremony is very hot and the heat builds from round to round. It can easily play tricks with your mind making you imagine you will be burned. Many people will ask permission to leave the lodge. People experiencing this are given the teaching that, “the flesh is weak and that you have to train your mind to be stronger. You have to differentiate between wants and needs. When your body wants something, a craving, such as alcohol, your mind needs to be strong enough to resist that impulse. Bu the end of the ceremony, the heat has forged a new person removing the impurities. When one exits the sweat lodge, representative of the womb of Mother Earth, they are reborn anew. Now they can begin again with a fresh start in life. From darkness there is now light. 

Research show specifically that “American Indians are more likely than any other US demographics to face substance abuse”(Slanton, pg. 74). It is an illness that needs to be remedied. With such a widespread problem it is obvious that the treatments being used to combat this disease at the present time are ineffective. A possible reason for this failure is pointed out in “The Healing Circle: An Alternative Path to Alcoholism Recovery.” Recovery from alcoholism has typically involved the program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). However, the values espoused by AA, especially those related to spirituality, can be in conflict with the values of traditional Native Americans.” (Vick, pg. 133) It is this reasoning that reinforces my idea, that a more culturally integrated approach for the treatment of substance abuse in the native population will provide a greater success rate. Ineffectiveness should not be the reason for such widespread suffering. The reintroduction of tribal cultural identity and traditional healing practices could be of great help. Incorporating the Native American sweat ceremony in conjunction with programs currently in use would be much more beneficial. This holistic approach would give one the unique opportunity to live a reintegrated lifestyle as was originally intended. In this way they can lead a happy life. 

I thought that it would be nice to include a teaching that has been passed down by a respected Chippewa Cree elder. His name is Wah-pah-nah-tahk) Morning Star or Joe Small Jr. He lived along with Chief Little Bear and moved to Rocky Boy in the Bear Paw Mountains in 1914. This was two years before the reservation was established. He spoke the words given to him by an elder, who said it had been passed down by the old people generation to generation:

A Happy Life

The Indian was given to be happy; to have a happy mind, a happy life, and a happy soul. When the first Indian was created on this island the people were given great things. Everything to eat was given so he could make his living and be happy. All different kinds of ceremonies were given so he could worship in a good way and ask for good things like health, life, and good luck. In those days, the Indian could worship as he pleased, anywhere, anytime, and in any way. The Indian had a very happy spirit. 

The Indian would ask that his children would follow in the right paths and not talk to their own people in a bad way, but when talking to their people they would talk in a good way, talk in a nice, friendly way. This is how people will be satisfied and happy. An Indian wants to use his religion in a good way and to do good. That’s the only way his prayers will be granted. He shouldn’t use his prayers just to show off. Nor should he talk badly about his own people. A person is not supposed to do bad things. It is pretty hard sometimes, but at leas try it. A person can try very hard to be good. He should try as hard as possible. 


Beauvais, Fred. “American Indians and Alcohol.” Alcohol Health and Research World Vol. 22 No. 4 (1998): 

Crow, Chelleye and Kimberly Roppolo. “Native American Education vs. Indian Learning: Still Battling Pratt after All These Years.” Studios in American Indian Literatures Vol. 19 No 1 (2007) 

Darkwind, Whisper to Me, et al “American Indian Boarding Schools” (2017)

Hodge, Felicia and Karabi Nandy. “Predictors of Wellness and American Indians.” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved Vol. 22 No. 3 (2011)

Irwin, Lee. “Walking the Line: Pipe and Sweat Ceremonies in Prison.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions Vol 9 No 3 (2006)

Slanton, Abilene. “Federal Statutory Responsibility and the Mental Health Crisis Among American Indians” American Indian Law Review Vol. 40 No 1 (2015-2016)

Vick Ronald D. Sr., Linda M. Smith, and Carol Iron Rope Herrera. “The Healing Circle: An Alternative Path to Alcoholism Recovery” Counseling and Values Vol. 42 (1998)

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