Originally appeared in The Ranger newspaper.
He began drinking to medicate emotional stress. Over time he felt inadequate in his career, as a father, and as a husband. His marriage ended. Problems escalated. Blame was cast on everything but himself.
Alone now, he relies on other people. When he drinks, he binges.
She is widowed. But she continues to try to find another husband among the high-risk population. She has no family or home. Her coping and social skills are weak. Spiritually she is confused.
She is alone now, too. She drinks in a steady pattern.
These are the typical chronic drinkers seen at the Na’nizhoozhi Center, the crowning, most-tangible achievement of the alcohol reform movement in McKinley County, N.M.
NCI, “the bridge” in Navajo, is a culturally sensitive 150-bed detox facility.
From the outside, the non-threatening stucco structure looks more like a southwestern store than a place where people sober up. Called “relatives” instead of clients because they all come from the same creator, they are locked in by bars arranged in Indian patterns. They lie on gymnastic mats before waking up, trying to figure out where they are.
Although the alcohol problem is still at dangerous levels in McKinley County, the improvement has been nothing short of, well, radical. Public drunkenness has been decriminalized as drunk driving laws have been stiffened. After four years of operation, client load has decreased by 49 percent. Other indicators also are down.
Countywide suicide rates have dropped from 50 percent above the state rate to 40 percent below. Protective custody or “danger-to-oneself” incarcerations have decreased 49 percent over the same period. Many of the so-called hopeless cases have returned to their families.
NCI treats each problem drinker with respect, giving him meals, vitamins, clean clothing and entertainment at a bed cost of $35 a day. Critics call it “NCI Hilton.” They also have access to either a medicine man or counselor.
This “soft-handed” protective custody program has reduced local emergency room and hospitalization costs by 58 percent, according to NCI figures.
The center was funded by city bonds, a county-wide 5 percent alcohol excise tax, and grant money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Indian Health Service. A state law was passed to allow law enforcement agencies to hold intoxicated people for up to five days.
It’s clearly a vast departure from the old “drunk tank,” where men and women were thrown in separate cells with little treatment.
Projects keep the relatives involved. Some make reflective patches in Indian patterns they then sew on clothing to keep them from getting hit by cars.
A breath alcohol content test is administered on intakes. For people who can’t get the traditional fix and consume cheaper alcohol-related products such as hair spray, cough medicine, and vanilla extract, the meter registers a haunting triple X.
These are the same products high school kids don’t think is poison. Unfortunately, though, bromine has a habit of destroying brains. After a few years of intermittent use, kidneys shut down and blindness results, that is if the drinker is still alive. A city law in Gallup allows local stores to refuse sales of dangerous products to obvious abusers.
The medical area provides minor health care such as removing sutures or bandaging wounds. The 24-hour operation refers serious cases to other hospitals. Anybody with a breath alcohol content over .250 is placed on a medical bed for supervision by nurses.
Gallup’s forced protective custody policy is graduated into three different stay-lengths depending upon the number of client visits within 30 days. Those held for the maximum five days spend the last three within a brief treatment program after the 18-hour detox period.
NCI has become more than a detox facility, a community crisis center for the county. About 50 percent of the people represent the chronic alcohol repeaters or the “700 club” and contribute to more than half the staff time and money.
The Eagle Plume Society was created for the chronic abusers who don’t respond to ordinary treatment. The scared “life giving” plume is worn by warriors to bring things back to life. They move out of the normal facility and into traditional ceremonial grounds for the 14-day intensive program.
Navajo rituals emphasize healing, and singers are of great importance. The ceremonies have to be performed flawlessly. Some outside of NCI have lasted nine days.
Navajos believe everything is either male or female, nature being their bible. Out back are male and female sweat lodges and hogans. It takes years as an apprentice with a medicine man to identify the gender of plants, explained Harrison Jim, lead traditional counselor.
The intensive program doesn’t follow a typical educational model found at other treatment centers. Instead, it’s a training ground for “positive warrior tough-mindedness.” When people suffer from a negative life, they may develop a callused attitude as a survival mechanism, said Dr. Matthew Kelly, NCI clinical director.
Moreover, they blame others, adopt a tough guy attitude, and they are loners with the exception of their peer drinking groups. Kelley said they tell them to remain tough but have a positive outlook on life rather than negative.
Further complicating the culture is witchcraft trauma. Although Christians have similar superstitions, Navajos follow a lot of unwritten rules and at times think somebody is “witching” them.
“There is a belief in this part of the world that people can influence you in a negative way. A large percentage of our clients believe that,” Kelley said.
Although most of the county is Navajo, it doesn’t mean they alone bear the brunt of the blame for alcoholism in the scheme of things. Several studies have indicated the normal Navajo consumer drinks less than the average U.S. non-Indian drinker, although the figures from other tribes vary considerably.
It’s a common misconception that American Indians are pre-genetically disposed for alcoholism. A 1988 study indicated there is no standard Native American response to alcohol. Other studies have shown Indians react to alcohol similar to the rest of society.
Historically, the heavy use of alcohol was encouraged by the U.S. military and perpetuated by missionaries and traders, as Kelley pointed out in a report. Even today, most popular American events are sponsored by beer companies, yet the majority of Navajo meetings, ceremonies, dances, rodeos and public events are alcohol-free.
Originally appeared in The Ranger, Riverton, Wyoming.