Road to recovery; Tulalip woman finds it's not too late

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TULALIP, Wash. -- One day, about a month ago, Rita Matta was feeling sorry
for herself and giving everyone in her household a hard time.

Then she heard a voice in her head -- she said it was the Great Spirit --
and the voice told her, "Grateful."

"The Great Spirit told me I wasn't being grateful for what I have," Matta
said. "I envisioned myself in prison. Then, this evil came out of me and
died."

Matta definitely has a lot for which to be grateful. Two years ago, when
she and her husband were selling and using crack cocaine, she could have
been dead. She could have been sent to prison for two years. She could have
been banished from the Tulalip Reservation.

"The could-haves and should-haves didn't happen," Matta said.

"It's a blessing to be alive, to have my children clean, for my husband to
be working, to have a home, to be able to see our grandchildren."

Matta is recovering from a 14-year cocaine habit. And she is using her
experience to help others get on the road to recovery.

Matta, 54, and her husband, Dana, were arrested in their Tulalip home Jan.
1, 2004 after selling crack to an undercover officer. They were arrested in
a sweep by Tulalip tribal police and federal agents; eight homes, including
one methamphetamine lab, were busted.

The Mattas had hit rock bottom. It was the beginning of a sea change in
their lives.

In federal court, the Mattas asked for treatment. Rita was admitted into a
60-day program, Dana a 28-day program.

"I knew if I didn't get into a treatment program, I would be dead," she
said at the time. "During treatment, I thought it was a nightmare. I kept
screaming for people to wake me up."

Matta pledged to go to prison clean and sober -- and to set things right
with her people. At a Tulalip Tribes General Council meeting Oct. 9, 2004,
Matta admitted what she did, apologized and asked for forgiveness.

"I asked people to remember me for who I am, not for what I did," she said.

The general council voted to not exclude -- or banish -- the Mattas from
the reservation.

"I support our fight against drugs, but we shouldn't throw our people
away," Debbie Posey was reported as saying in the Tulalip newspaper,
See-Yaht-Sub. "There has to be a way for our people to stay sober and
comply with the laws and come back home and be embraced once again by our
people."

Helen Fenrich added, "Part of recovery is asking for forgiveness. Rita is
asking her friends and relatives to forgive her. I applaud that,"
See-Yaht-Sub reported.

At the meeting, Tulalip Councilman Marlin Fryberg Jr. said the exclusion
law was set up to fight drugs -- "to say we are not going to have tolerance
for drugs," See-Yaht-Sub reported. "But it is also set up to allow people
who go through programs and show that they have changed to come back to the
reservation."

While awaiting sentencing, the Mattas attended Narcotics Anonymous
meetings. Aware of the drug problem at Tulalip, they asked how they could
get a chapter started. They got help from the N.A. chapter at Providence
Hospital in Everett.

Matta also started writing a column for the Tulalip newspaper to share her
experience and spread the word about treatment programs that are available.
She now writes the column twice a month. And between 12 and 20 people
attend each Saturday night meeting of the Tulalip N.A. chapter.

Impressed by their turnaround, the federal judge sentenced the Mattas to
house arrest for six months.

As of this writing, Matta has been sober for 20 months. On June 16, she
completed "with honor" a relapse prevention program, "Red Road to
Wellbriety," conducted by The Tulalip Tribes Family Services Department.

The Mattas have five children; one is deceased. A 15-year-old daughter, who
ran away after the drug bust, went through treatment and is sober. She had
a summer job and is now in school.

"I have a houseful of sober people," Matta said.

The Mattas' experience was not without cost. They had been a year from
owning their home on a one-third-acre plot of land on the Tulalip
Reservation, which cost them $175 a month; they lost it in accordance with
Tulalip law. They now rent a house in nearby Marysville for $1,150 a month
and Dana Matta works for the Snohomish County Road Department.

And Matta still prays for the return of the seven guardian spirits that had
walked with her since she was 7. "When I was drinking and drugging, I lost
them," she said. "I want my Native ways back. I can't comprehend being
banished from the tribe."

DEALING WITH THE PAIN

Matta said the N.A. chapter she started is titled "Red Road to Recovery."

"We are Native people helping one another -- one word, one hug, an open ear
-- helping others get off that trail of tears."

While the group focuses on treatment, there is also recognition of the
historical trauma at the root of most substance abuse among American
Indians.

A 1995 documentary narrated by actor Benjamin Bratt, "The Red Road to
Sobriety," explored the trauma resulting from what it called the "American
Holocaust."

"Few Americans or Canadians are aware that the governments of North America
used alcohol in their attempts to destroy indigenous culture and acquire
Indian lands," a plot summary for the documentary stated.

"The devastating effects were compounded by the circulation of 'the drunken
Indian' stereotype. Faced with the loss of their religion, land, freedom
and pride, Indian families experienced a syndrome known as
intergenerational trauma, similar to the experiences of many families of
European Holocaust survivors."

While in treatment, Matta came to terms with pain that she blames partly
for her addiction. She went into treatment Jan. 13, 2004, on the 24th
anniversary of a son's death. She got out of treatment on her late sister's
birthday.

She realized that if she didn't let go, she would die.

Matta wants to take her program into jails. She said most people in jail
were drugging or drinking when they committed their crimes.

Matta knows what it's like to have lost almost everything, but to have
gained her life. She's devoting her life to staying clean and sober and
helping others get there too.

"There are a lot of people who are hurting," she said in an earlier
interview. "A lot of people are going through the same thing. When does it
end? Are we going to have an empty reservation?"

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash.
Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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