CROWN POINT, N.M. - Alden Etcitty, 15, is a product of a sometimes isolated population, living deep within the boundaries of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.
It is at least 35 miles to the nearest reservation village of Crown Point. He has attended a reservation boarding school since first grade. He will celebrate his 16th birthday Aug. 31.
Alden's parents are unable to earn a decent living, even under the best of circumstances, and circumstances for the family have seldom been the best of anything. No one, from his family of nine siblings, has continued his or her education.
Although he recently graduated from the eighth grade of his local BIA school, Alden insists he is not very smart.
"I can't read," he'll admit, in a nearly inaudible whisper.
Alden knows more about alcohol and substance abuse and "huffing," than any subject he has studied in his life.
Ask him if he has ever visited Michigan and you are likely to hear, "Is Michigan a state?" But about substance abuse, and he is a virtual fountain of information.
He can tell you how it feels to inhale fumes directly from an automobile gas tank. He can describe the various methods to capture deadly vapors from a can of aerosol spray paint. He knows which brands, and which types, of inhalants are likely to produce the longest and more powerful highs.
And he can name those who have asphyxiated themselves or done irreparable damage to lungs, brains or both in their efforts to sustain a state of altered consciousness.
Most of those with whom he socializes are, or have been, alcohol or substance abusers. He can list a wide array of substances his reservation counterparts commonly ingest to produce a state of intoxication that will last for days - including hair spray, mouthwash and Lysol sprayed into a rag before squeezing the liquid into a cup.
Alden describes, in vivid detail, the last time he huffed and hallucinated marbles "the size of tiny shotgun pellets" coming from his mouth as his lungs struggled to function and his body fought to breathe.
From a hospital bed in Albuquerque, he described the even-more shocking terror of nearly losing his life after being stabbed following a party in his home.
The evening of July 31, a Monday night, a group of reservation teen-agers gathered at the Etcitty home, without benefit of adult supervision. Alden was overseeing his sister, 12, and two nephews, 8 and 2.
A cousin, 18, and her friend, Brandon Charlie, 21, were present and Alden admits alcohol was consumed. Now Alden is recovering from major surgery while Charlie is in jail, facing federal charges of assault resulting in serious bodily injury.
While Alden dreams of piecing his life back together, Charlie could spend 10 years in prison if convicted.
Members of the Etcitty family say Charlie was not usually welcome at their home and said he once pulled a knife on Johnson Etcitty, Alden's father.
It all began about 8:30 p.m., when an argument broke out and the cousin and Charlie left. About 10, Charlie returned, Alden said, breaking a window and climbing inside before anyone realized what was happening.
"I though he hit me with something. I felt something. Then he jumped on me," Alden recalled. "Everyone piled on top of us and I was yelling for them to get off.
"I felt the blood ... but at first I couldn't understand ... "I didn't know how bad I was hurt, or how much I was bleeding."
When Alden was able to stand, he saw everyone staring at his chest in horror. Blood poured from two wounds in his upper left chest, combined with the bubbling and hissing of air from his punctured lung.
He said he stumbled from the party to a tiny house fewer than 20 yards away, where another cousin resided. He collapsed with his right hand over the gaping wounds, "trying to stop the bleeding," as he later recalled.
He said after he collapsed, he began experiencing blackouts and while he waited to see if help would arrive, he contemplated his death.
"The dark would come in and I would not be able to see anything," he said. "I had to make myself breathe ... or I just didn't (breathe.)
"I knew that if I would just let go, I would not have to be here anymore.
"I kept thinking if I stopped fighting to breathe that I would be gone," he said from his hospital room in Albuquerque. "I thought real hard about everything ... and everyone. I knew that it could just be over."
A tear slid from his eye, and he made no effort to wipe it away as he recalled how his nephew, Brian Etcitty, 14, an avid runner known for his stand against alcohol consumption, knew of a neighbor with a cell phone and ran to call for help.
He underwent extensive surgery him at the University of New Mexico's Children's Hospital to stop internal bleeding and repair damage to his lung and surrounding tissue.
Days later, Alden watched as a machine designed to keep blood from his internal wounds from accumulating inside his chest, was removed - along with 24 staples that closed an incision made to assess and repair internal damage from the knifing.
"I prayed for the first time in my life on the way to the hospital," Alden says.
A new-found dedication to continuing his education and attending an art school is top priority and he is working diligently to ensure he will be able to follow through with remedial courses to learn to read.
He says he no longer sees quitting as an option, and is vocal in his dedication to establishing himself in the world.
"No more drugs," he said. "No more alcohol. It almost took my life. I am going to work on my faith, and work toward my future.
"I want to change my life and become someone," he said on release from the hospital. "I want to live my life. I want to make a difference, to contribute something. I want to do something with my life."
His gifts, particularly in art and music, are apparent as he practices drumming and works diligently on highly detailed pieces of artwork - using a wide variety of mediums from pencil sketches to woodburning.
His ability to draw an audience of admirers each time he puts pencil to paper would indicate Alden clearly has leadership characteristics he finds so admirable in people like Stanley Benally, the director of the Navajo Nation's Behavioral Health Services Department.
Benally has said he is concerned for Alden, as well as others who share his plight.
"Basically, it's the teachers," he charges. "The school provides the learning environment, but if you have a core of teachers - or teachers that don't give a damn about the kids' learning process and are not allowing the children ample opportunity ... and actually be receptive to the child's shortcomings, then you have a situation where the child is being neglected."
Benally said he was concerned that BIA schools may not be promoting phonics programs instrumental in teaching language to many reservation children.
"Native American languages have more sounds and different combinations than you would normally hear in the speaking of English. That is an advantage to us, but because of this, the introduction and understanding of phonics is instrumental in providing the foundation for learning language.
"If you don't have that foundation," he said, "you are basically lost. And that seems to be lacking in the very first three grades."
However, Lake Valley Indian School Principal, David Atanasoff says the number of dysfunctional family units on the Navajo Reservation are an issue. "The doctor prescribed the Ritalin (for Alden) and we followed the doctor's recommendations on it." Lake Valley is a BIA school.
"He (Alden) is a beautiful individual, with a tremendous amount of talent," Atanasoff said. "Used to be, during recess time, he would get up here with his drum and create songs and they would gather around and sing Indian songs under the leadership of Alden."
Atanasoff admitted the school has non-readers. "I understand Perry Como was a non-reader ... there are a lot of dyslexic students who have other ways of learning." The principal went on to say there are "many famous people who are non-readers that go through life, are successful and do many things, good things, for our society, and - you know - can't read."
Benally won't accept that rationale, that some students might succeed without developing reading skills. He condones only programs with proved, successful strategies that provide a solid foundation in communication with a strong focus on literacy.
Bruce Helm, principal of Crown Point High School which Alden attended briefly following his graduation from Lake Valley two years ago, disagreed with the premise some students simply cannot read.
He said he'd prefer to readdress the problem once the student arrives at Crown Point.
"Some of the feeder schools do not fall under the same state guidelines that" the public school system does. He said curricula vary and, "Our average student that comes into our junior high is three to four grade levels behind in reading."
Helm said the school can only provide supplemental support to so many kids. "If you have so many that needs it and you can only provide so much, you start at the bottom and work toward the top."
Part of the program, he said, is to get the students "back on line and get them back into the regular classes so that we can get more kids in."
In his position, Benally studies in-depth the difficulties with alcohol and substance abuse issues known to plague reservation families.
"The key is spiritual regeneration ... ," Benally says. "And I'm not talking so much about affiliation or religious belief as I am the inner soul of the individual.
"The total approach to this is from a spiritual nature ... and the spiritual part of the individual has been completely smothered by the repression of the federal policies that have been introduced over, probably, the last five decades."
He went on to say, "This has basically stripped the Indian of his identity and has made a grave contribution to how the children are being dealt with. It also gives rise to the pathological conditions that we see is a disorder that is right next to substance abuse ... and that exacerbates the situation even more."
"We need to have family treatment centers. That's an innovation that's certainly being considered for reservations.
"Frequently we have three generations of drinking that we have to deal with, sometimes even four. We have to resort back to our roots and that's where the revitalization of the spiritual nature of the individual has to come in."
Benally maintains the best method of dealing with the poverty and isolation of reservation living - as well as the avoidance of alcohol and substance abuse - remains within the education of the reservation young people.
"We need to give the Native Americans their own tribal intervention, and allow us to use herbs that have better managing potency (than the Ritalin Alden was receiving) and do not have all of these side effects," Benally said. "Without the basic elements - the ability to read probably the most significant of all - if a miracle happens, they may stay in school until they are 18, but in most cases that isn't the outcome," he said.
"Usually they quit (school), they start drinking and then the violence, and everything that goes with it."
That everything includes 15-year-old Alden Etcitty, now trying to piece his life back together and 21-year-old Brandon Charlie who is observing life from within a jail cell.