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Renaissance Man spreads the message of wellbriety

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - There's a renaissance going on in Indian country, a renaissance led by men and women of bold vision; men and women with their feet firmly planted on the ground who can carry out the ideas their hearts and spirits have created. Clayton J. Small is a Renaissance Man.

Small started his career-life as a school principal in rural and urban American Indian communities. Although he now travels throughout the United States and Canada as a keynote speaker and conference leader addressing Indian men's "wellbriety," recovery issues and the much wider spectrum of community wellness, he retains a candid, "It's just me out here doin' my best," commonsense approach to the topics he covers.

A Northern Cheyenne from Montana, Small isn't one to talk much about his past. He's too busy living in the present, working to make a difference in the lives of American Indians of all tribes.

It's not that he hasn't had issues with his past. It's not that he hasn't faced, square on, his own burden of shame as an Indian man, his issues with his father and his issues with a repressive society. He's done all that. And it's freed him up to do the work his spirit has called on him to do.

"How many times have you heard people say 'I'm a survivor of this and I'm the survivor of that?'" asks Small. "It's b--- s---. It's time to live. It's time to live fully. And that's part of the personal empowerment that has to occur."

How do we get healthier communities, healthier families and healthier reservations, he asks?

"The reality is, there's no quick fix. How it happens is one individual at a time getting healthy ... and establishing themselves as role models and mentors for others and, little by little, it will grow."

For many years, Small has focused on dealing with the issues of substance abuse in Indian country. While working as a faculty member in the multi-cultural education department at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., he served as director of a Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention (CSAP) high-risk youth project.

At the same time he attended school full-time, working on his Ph.D. in educational leadership. He graduated from Gonzaga in 1996. For the last eight years Small has run a consulting practice in substance abuse prevention. He has worked for the western headquarters of the Indian Health Service alcohol and substance abuse program in Albuquerque, identifying good prevention models that could be replicated in Indian country.

In his contracts with the BIA office of Indian Education Programs, he helped develop model programs for violence prevention and substance abuse prevention as well as school discipline implementation. Lack of government funding, however, recently put a crimp in development of more prevention programs on the governmental level.

And prevention, with a capital 'P,' is what Small considers the best hope for altering substance abuse and other negative behavioral patterns in Indian communities.

"They (BIA/IHS) are in survival mode rather than visionary mode right now," he says. "I think, as a nationwide system, the American system is focused on the clinical medical model - how can we do surgery to "fix it" versus doing the hard work, the soul work and the healing work."

Doing the hard work, taking up the slack are private and community-based groups, individual tribes and individual schools. Small recently finished a contract with Kelloggs Corp. which funded six Indian communities around the country to put together a planning grant to address improving community wellness.

Oddly enough, the lack of government funding may turn out to be a blessing. Small points out that one of the major factors contributing to a sense of disempowerment in tribal communities is the habit of dependence on government services and funding.

"If we wait for formal leadership at the highest levels to get healthy and well and visionary, people are going to die waiting," Small says. "It's usually the grass-roots community, the common man, the common woman, the common person who lives and dies on the reservation who really knows what the challenges are. And they really need to acknowledge that they also possess the solutions."

The solutions, Small says, don't have to be elaborate or expensive or large. They can be as simple as one family deciding to invite teens over for hot dogs once a week after school to help keep them off the streets and out of trouble, or starting a men's circle, a women's prayer group or a backyard sweat lodge.

All it takes, he says, is personal commitment to change. And it is opening to spirit that makes that personal commitment possible.

In a nationwide survey Small helped conduct, the vast majority of Indian men surveyed told him that what helped them continue to move forward in wellness and healing was Native American spirituality. Some complied with traditional Christian, organized faith. Many combined organized faith with traditional ceremony. But the driving force for wellbriety was "Native spirituality."

"All through history we have been told not to embrace our culture and language and our ceremonies," Small says. "But ... it's still there and it's in this renaissance period and it's coming back strongly.

"Our prophecies tell us that we have to always hold onto our ceremonies and our spirituality. And our prophecies, for the most part in Indian country, speak very pointedly that at some point in our development we're going to be tested to respond in our lifestyle to mainstream America and forget about those old (western socialized) teachings and those old values.

"We can never go back to the way life was 150 years ago. But we can take a blending and interface the essence of who we are as Indian people with the best of what's out there in mainstream America. It doesn't have to be one or the other. The challenge, I think, is to somehow blend them both."

Whether it's developing prevention models for substance abuse, sexual abuse and violence in Indian communities, community development or youth leadership, Small's approach is a holistic one, blending the best treatment plans of both cultures. Modern counseling methodologies mix with traditional ceremony. Always, there is a focus on personal and community empowerment and the inclusion of mind, body and spirit in the healing process.

Although much of his time is taken up as a speaker and conference leader, his dream is to work long-term with Indian communities addressing wellness challenges and developing programs that really work; programs that can serve as models for other Indian communities.

"So much of what you see is just short-term "let's try this, let's try that" kind of revolving-door program models, and people and organizations and communities stay stuck," he says. "So there needs to be a level of commitment over time, at least three to five years. And that, I think, speaks to the readiness of the organization or community to really stay the course."

As for Small, he's been on course for a long time. Like any good Renaissance Man, he intends to stay there, working with others to help widen the path for those yet to come who are ready for change.

Clayton Small can be reached at (505) 897-7968