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Of Alcohol and Sundancing

Ordinarily I would not use those two words in the same sentence. A little over ten years ago I awoke in my pickup along a dirt road that served as a common driveway to my home and neighboring homes. Sometime during the night I had driven off the road and smashed several feet of a neighbor’s fence. A pole was sticking clean though the grill, the radiator, knocking off the air filter. Six inches higher and that pole would have been though my chest. I knew that was the last warning. Someone up there wanted me to live.

About a week later I went to the Sundance (Thirst Dance) on my home reservation and told one of the elders that I wanted help. He told me to go to the Tree (Center Pole) and ask the Creator/God for help and say to all who can hear what you want to happen and it will be that way, if you really mean it and want it. I went to the Tree and I prayed in a very public way (he was repeating what I had said to him in a very loud voice) and I asked God to take the burden(s) caused by my abuse of alcohol and to put them where they could not hurt anyone anymore. I made a vow to come back to the Sundance for the next four years. I actually went beyond four. I’m there each year that I’m able although I have been leaving the harder parts to the youngsters. The last time I danced I was the oldest guy in there.

I left the Sundance and had my son drop me off at the local Air Strip and caught a puddle-jumper to Billings and a quick taxi ride off the airport hill put me in front of the Rimrock Treatment Center. I had misgivings right up to the time I rang the buzzer and I thought about just running. I didn’t. Still being engaged in self-centered thinking as a matter of course, I was thankful that I could do “this” in relative anonymity. I almost had to laugh when the buddy that was assigned to me turned out to be someone I knew. Within a day I met two other people from my home reservation. Little did I know there were bonds I’d establish there that would last to this day. We started a little “smudging” group in the early morning in the “smoke room” and it soon grew to include others. I didn’t know whether they were Indian or not. Some of them, on the day they left treatment, asked to smudge one more time with the Sweatgrass and Eagle Feather I just happened to have with me. Like anything just “happens”?

I cannot say that I never looked back, but I’ve had no overwhelming desire to consume alcohol since the day I went to the Tree. Little desires did pop up, but all I had to do was try to think of the worst five situations I ever got into, or the worst five things I ever did, while drunk or blacked out. I would usually get to only one or two. Not that I don’t remember the others, I do. But I had another strong physical memory that helped, the memory of the head pounding, cotton mouthed, dry heave, toxic oozing, sweaty, shaking, light sensitive mornings (or afternoons) waking up after weekends of oblivion. Mondays were a not a trip to the beach. Thank God that our body reminds us that alcohol is poisonous to humans when consumed in abusive quantities and your body tells you that, in so many ways.

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As we enter into the first weekend in July, it is a time for many tribes and clans to conduct the ceremonies we refer to generally and collectively as the Sundance, although each ceremony has its own character and is somewhat dependent upon the leaders involved.

Anyone who reads this and is even contemplating escaping the misery that invariably accompanies alcohol abuse (other drugs too), including the misery of withdrawal, the message is simple, seek help. One thing I’ve learned: Real men ask for help. Well, real women too. Go to the religious leaders you know or know about, or just to someone you know who follows the Red Road in some form or another. It might be someone who just has a “Sweat” down the road. It might be someone you know who attends church, whatever church. You don’t have to be religious/spiritual yourself. It’s just that if they really follow the Red Road, they will do what they can or steer you in the right direction. “You” might be religious/spiritual after you experience the grace of the Creator/God and the miracle of sobriety either smacks you over the head or slowly leads you for years to the self-respect (self-love in the non conceited sense) and self-forgiveness adopting a sober life-style will bring. Will there still be suffering, headaches and heartaches in you life? Sure, that’s life, but you won’t have to go on a binge when stuff happens. You’ll either handle it or you’ll realize you can’t do anything about it, and that will be acceptable without having to seek oblivion.

If you are a young person (that’s anyone under 35 to me), you are not “too young” to seek help if you know you need it and you will know in your heart when you do, if not your pounding head. You might escape treatment if you decide to adopt a sober life-style that goes along with an exploration of your culture/spirituality. You might not. If you do decide that you are going to seek out the spiritual part of your culture, do it with 100% sincerity. Don’t do it just to say you did it or to impress your significant other of your commitment.

So many people go into the lodges with ulterior motives. Some are even politically motivated. They are not there for others. When they come out, they don’t lead the Red Road lifestyle. They are still thinking “me, me, me” or “poor pitiful me” and “look at me,” and they are still treating people badly. They are still using and abusing. They are still hitting their spouse. They are still lying, cheating, stealing and they are still giving in to greed, stinginess, envy, hate and lust. They may even want to claim to be leaders, including religious leaders, but they don’t want to follow. You can’t be a leader without following and experiencing the “me” becoming “we”. Pray for others that you be prayed for. Serve others that you be served. Be a loyal follower and help those who would follow you. These are not Biblical teachings. These are the teachings in our lodges, our Pipe ceremonies, Sundances, fasting pits and all our other ceremonies. These are the teachings that go along with the Pipe, the Drum, the Bundles and the Lodges. They are not meant for four days a year. They are teachings to live by, each and every day.

Harold A. Monteau is a Chippewa Cree attorney who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and was the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission in the Clinton administration. He can be reached at