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The Red Road Is the Right Path

By any Means necessary: Nataanii Means (right) with his actor-comedian brother Tatanka

Manidoogekek on the Red Road to wellness

The trials, tribulations and triumphs of one man’s recovery through traditional healing

The physical scars from two head-on car collisions are no longer the first thing you notice when you meet him. You first take note of the keen sense of humor he uses to manage the numerous volunteers working at his council’s sobriety pow wow. He is clad in jeans, a gustoweh (a northeast woodlands traditional headdress) of hawk feathers, and one of his several exquisitely tailored ribbon shirts. When asked about the scars, though, he says, “Actually, you could discover scars all over my entire body.” And then he laughs.

Violent loss of family and friends, loss of tribal lands to the Canadian and U.S. governments, loss of culture and freedom to practice traditional religion from the boarding-school era, loss of a self-sustaining lifestyle and a subsequent loss of self once led Don Manidoogekek of Massachusetts and Michigan to use drugs and alcohol. Years have passed since he got help and today he says that instead of merely enduring life, “I have awe for life.” Since achieving sobriety, he has become a student of American Indian traditional medicine, a psychiatric nurse, and a teacher of American Indian traditional healing for anyone else interested in committing to sobriety.

Initially, Manidoogekek received help for his addictions from 12-step programs and later, from traditional Native healers. In return for what was given him—what he calls the gift of sobriety—he now organizes Red Road Recovery programs. “And in order to stay strong, I continue to learn by teaching others what I have learned, as well as accept instruction from traditional elders.

“The Red Road is an approach to recovery that uses traditional Native American medicine. We show the importance of tribal values and spiritual awareness in the recovery process.” He has committed to continuing to learn as much as possible from elders at his reservation in Michigan as well as from elders on the East Coast who were taught by the first wave of Native teachers who came east to teach after the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978.

An Anishinaabe and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, Manidoogekek grew up on Sugar Island (near the upper peninsula of Michigan) at a time when Sugar Island was not part of the Ojibwe Nation Reservation. “The Indians on Sugar Island did not get much support from the government except for some of the commodity foods,” he says. “There were dirt roads. The houses were shacks with no plumbing. If you had electricity, it wasn’t too dependable due to the cheap wiring. It was very cold in the winter. Some had stills to bootleg moonshine to sell to white people. Yet, we were self-sufficient. My Uncle Mickey snared rabbits and trapped muskrats and beaver. My Nokomis [grandmother], who only spoke Ojibwe, picked herbal plants for medicine. She and my aunts and mother also gathered wild fruits and planted large gardens. They made ash baskets, for personal use and to sell or to trade.”

His father, a mechanic, couldn’t find work, so the family moved back to Massachusetts and “kept moving back and forth until I was about 8 years old. We then moved around Massachusetts until I was 18, but we did spend about 10 years in Mansfield, a well-to-do town in southeastern Massachusetts.” There weren’t any other people who looked like him or his siblings, and he endured years of name-calling and beatings. One day, when Manidoogekek was 8 or 9, his father cracked a joke while driving with his family and a childhood friend of Manidoogekek’s. The friend said, “You niggers are funny.” Manidoogekek says his father stopped the car and screamed at the kid that they weren’t niggers, they were Indians. That was the first time Manidoogekek became aware of his racial identity. “If you were an Indian who grew up fairly isolated and only around extended family and then suddenly had to cope in suburbia, you can identify with that,” he says. Manidoogekek says that his personal story is one “that I think can only happen to Indians.”

Don explains that his name Manidoogekek translates to “spirit hawk,” but that he does not use that. “People respect that I primarily use my Ojibwe name and I respect the effort it takes to use unfamiliar Ojibwe words.” Another bitter part of Manidoogekek’s family history includes a forced change of surname by the U.S. government that denied the Ojibwe their matriarchal culture. Manidoogekek says “my birth certificate reads Mendoskin, which means ‘do good things,’ and is my mother’s family name.” His birth name was later changed to his father’s name (Silva) in order to comply with the dominant society’s patriarchal customs.

When Manidoogekek was 18, he and his younger brother were passengers in a car full of friends. It crashed, and his younger brother died. A year later, again as the passenger of a drunk driver, Manidoogekek was in a wreck that killed his girlfriend. His injuries required a six-month stay in the hospital, where he endured many operations. He became addicted to painkillers, and when he was released, he used alcohol to manage the constant pain. “I had low self-esteem and no coping skills and the psychological effects of looking differently than I had, and the scars caused the disease of addiction to really take off,” he says. “I was pretty functional, I went to work, but I also used [drugs] each day. Alcohol gave me courage.”

He was 27 before he got himself into a detox program. His recovery coincided with the groundswell of change reflected in the emergence of the American Indian Movement (“which, at the very least, helped me feel like I could talk about being Indian and meet others”), federal recognition of his tribe (“that gave me some stability, identity, and assurance about going back and forth to visit family still there”) and passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (“which meant that the elders who knew the old traditions could now openly teach my generation”).

He says traditional healing even helped him cope with his physical injuries: “Traditional healing helps physically by enhancing the spirit so you overcome the physical things. It helped me slow down, through prayer, for instance, which of course is a form of meditation.

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“My Native American teachers informed me right off that the Indian commitment to sobriety began thousands of years ago, when our ancestors intentionally migrated inland and settled around the Great Lakes in order to preserve our culture from invaders, and to allow some of us to resist the ‘gift’ of alcohol from those invaders, events that had been prophesied. It gave me incredible hope when I learned that our ancestors protected our traditions.

“I was fortunate to learn from John Running Deer, a member of the Algonquin Medicine Society. His personal medicine or strength was in teaching as well as herbal medicine, and he knew a lot of the preserved culture. My recovery was in very small steps, like driving John Running Deer to ceremonies, like helping break down a pow wow when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Being part of the process, helping out by driving or whatever, is one of the very intentional, very formal and recognized Indian ways of helping you to recover, by getting you involved.”

John Running Deer and Manidoogekek traveled to ceremonies on weekends, and Manidoogekek was introduced to Whipoorwill, “a very quiet and knowledgeable person many people seek out, and her husband, Paul Wildcat Cloud, who also became a mentor. Wildcat told me to return to my Anishinaabe people, learn and bring what I learned back to the East and teach more people,” Manidoogekek says. “When you learn who you are, become part of your culture, you become strong and can resist alcohol and drugs.”

Manidoogekek now holds public ceremonies. One is called the staking ceremony. In it, anyone troubled by addiction comes into the circle on the pow wow grounds and literally stakes himself to the place where he is standing in order to face the addiction, “as in the old days, when we would stake ourselves to the ground and stand and fight,” Manidoogekek explains. “It is a symbol that we will stand and commit to staying sober.” At a sobriety pow wow at the Dighton Intertribal Indian Council’s grounds in June, more than 60 people entered the circle on Saturday and 50 more staked on Sunday. “All races can attend as we are guided by respect for all people,” Manidoogekek adds.

While he learned traditional Native medicine, Manidoogekek also established a career in Massachusetts that required a lot of training of a different kind. He spent five years working at Taunton State Hospital in Taunton, Massachusetts, where he became interested in nursing. When he was in his early 40s, he earned his first nursing degree, which led to a job at the North American Indian Center of Boston as the Diabetes Program Coordinator, where he worked for six years. Now, at the age of 54, after two more years of schooling, he has become a psychiatric nurse. Two more car accidents since 2000 (one a result of the other car being driven by a drunk driver) as well as an assault by a mentally-ill patient have left Manidoogekek with more permanent physical injuries, more physical scars.

He says that alcoholism and other addictions, as well as diabetes, are huge problems both on and off the reservation. “Our addictions are because of economics—alcohol was used by white people to persuade us to give up a lot; it was a racist weapon and used against our survival. Genetically, it is relatively new to us. It was not that long ago that we lost our land and way of living, sometimes within a generation. We are very susceptible to addictions. So this is why we ask people to join us in the gift of sobriety and recovery. Everyone has a different path for recovery and I am just one who is very fortunate to have traditional elders to teach me.”

Get Your Feet Back on the Good Red Road Again

Michael Chiago, 'Vikigha Ceremony: Great Spring Harvest Dance' (detail)

The duet Timbered Lake—Diana Ramsdell Newman and her husband, Crow Suncloud—rocks the pow wow circuit with their sobriety song.

During an afternoon break at her Medicine Bear Pow Wow in Rochester, New Hampshire, Pat Lilly, Abenaki, explained that when she was a young girl, “My father told me that an Ojibwe would come here [to the East Coast]. Larry Matrious [now deceased] was that man. He came to the East and stayed and taught his medicine; this was part of the Seven Fires Prophecies of the Anishinaabe.”

Matrious was Naga-nawe-wi-dong (First Thunder, He Who Speaks First), one of the last elders from Lake Lena Reservation, Minnesota who learned the ancient ways. He came to New Hampshire in 1989 to lead people “learning to walk the spirit path.” He mentored Lilly, who in turn mentored Don Manidoogekek. “I watched Don and saw that he was honorable. He wanted to carry the pipe for his people, and I taught him,” Lilly says.

Lilly has worked since the 1980s at the Strafford County Department of Corrections as an alcohol and drug therapist and also has a private practice. She sings a healing sobriety song at a dozen or so pow wows each year, and believes that sobriety pow wows are gifts to the people. This June, Lilly’s “kick-ass pow wow” (her words) featured Timbered Lake–poet Crow Suncloud doing vocals, indigenous percussion and drum; his wife, songwriter Diana Ramsdell Newman, on vocals and acoustic guitar. Newman wrote “Grandmother’s Door,” which is about the influence of her husband’s Passamaquoddy grandmother, but it has become the sobriety song in Indian country. Its first lines are, “Put your feet back on the good Red Road again/Put your feet back on the good Red Road again! Again!”

Newman says the Red Road is partly a metaphor for returning to a balanced and ethical way of living, a life where you understand that obstacles in your path are there to be corrected. “Elders listen to ‘Grandmother’s Door’ and come and thank us and also surprise us sometimes by coming right into the circle,” Newman says. “That’s one of the ways you know it is a medicine song.”