SAN CARLOS, Ariz. – “It hurts me to think about lost time with family especially the children,” said Isabel Sisto, 65, San Carlos Apache, as tears streamed down her face. Sisto struggled with alcoholism earlier in her life, but she’s been sober 25 years. “To see (family members) now struggling. It’s hard. Sometimes I don’t see hope (for them) but (I know) it’s possible.”
Sisto’s story is all too familiar on Indian reservations across the country. According to a 2008 national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, one in 10 or 11.7 percent of Native Americans die from alcohol related traffic accidents or alcoholic liver disease compared to 3.3 percent of the United States as a whole. Alcohol related deaths may actually be higher as the study did not include deaths related to some diseases for which alcohol is a high risk factor such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and colon cancer.
While the statistics are grim, what excites Sisto and Harrison Bonito, also San Carlos Apache and a recovering alcoholic, is a movement they actively participate in called Indians in Sobriety. Founded in 1986 in Tucson, the grassroots program offers hope to those struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. Each year tribal communities host a campout to celebrate sobriety birthdays of people like Sisto and Bonito. It’s also a chance for participants and advocates to share successful recovery methods. This summer it will be held July 22 – 25 on the San Carlos Apache Reservation, 120 miles east of Phoenix.
“Once I became sober I never thought about going back. I’m a different person now. I’m a spiritual person. I’m involved with the medicine people and I go to sweats. I get a lot of strength from that,” said Bonito, 53, who is 28 years into sobriety.
Understanding why so many Apaches abuse alcohol is a topic Louis Lorenzo, San Carlos Apache, is passionate about. He’s eager to share his research on Apache history and the historical trauma they suffered in local newspapers and at community events. “Alcohol was introduced to the Apaches on purpose,” Lorenzo recently told students from Ft. Thomas High School attending a Teen Town Hall. “That was the beginning of social problems on the reservation such as alcohol abuse, child molestation and domestic violence. Apache men began to cut off the noses of their wives because they didn’t want other men to look at them.” He referred to a period in the 1870s when the San Carlos Apache Reservation was established in what was considered unlivable desert terrain. Conditions were so bad, U.S. soldier’s dubbed San Carlos agency “Hell’s 40 acres.”
The site is now home to the Old San Carlos Memorial, about 50 miles away from Point of Pines Lake where the 24th annual gathering of Indians in Sobriety will take place.
Lorenzo, 43, sober for 15 years, works for the tribe’s Social Services Department and is the chairperson of this year’s Indians in Sobriety Campout. He, Bonito and Sisto are part of a Campout Committee planning to host as many as 4,000 people from around the country. Bonito will assist with the men’s sweat lodges during the campout. It’s something he did back in 1996 when San Carlos first hosted the event.
The campout is a family event. While the adults are busy with AA meetings, talking circles, sweat lodges and other sessions tackling substance abuse, kids can have fun doing a variety of activities including fishing, hiking, and arts and crafts. There will also be family activities. Highlights of the event include a Sobriety Countdown, Sobriety Pow Wow, Honor Ceremony, a traditional potluck feast and nightly Apache Social Singing & Dancing.
The timing of this year’s campout complements another movement taking place on the San Carlos Reservation. Last year, tribal leaders stressed healing and reconciliation as they commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of Geronimo, a controversial yet revered figure in American history. While the commemoration led to disagreements among Apaches about whether he should be honored, efforts surrounding the event raised more awareness about the onset of historical trauma Apaches endured during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The commemoration is now an annual event. Some mental health experts agree due to the massive losses of lives, land and culture from European contact, Native Americans continue to deal with chronic trauma and unresolved grief across generations, which contributes to many social problems.
The goal of the Indians in Sobriety Campout is to help those who still bear the effects of historical trauma. Apache medicine men will conduct a spiritual ceremony at the campout as a call for forgiveness so the healing process can begin for all nations.
“Everybody needs help. You have to take it one day at a time especially the young people. We need to teach them alcohol and drugs are not the way,” Bonito said.
Sisto agrees. “As Native people, we all struggle. It’s important to help each other out. (Alcoholism) it’s like being in a sand pile. We have to help each other walk in sobriety. It can happen with effort and faith. Everything is possible with faith. I’d like to extend an invitation to everyone, including non-Natives, to come to our reservation.”
All AA groups, speakers, presenters, Native youth groups and facilitators interested in attending are urged to contact the planning committee as soon as possible. Also needed are volunteers and spiritual leaders to run sweat lodges for both men and women. For more information visit http://home.earthlink.net/~indiansinsobriety/index.html or e-mail Louis Lorenzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (928) 475-7335.