Every Tuesday and Friday evening, a group of impassioned tribal members gather together at the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians’ Shedawin Building for Wellbriety, an addiction recovery program known more colloquially as “AA in the Native American way.”
As with any other Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, individuals of all ages share their lived experiences and discuss lessons associated with each of AA’s twelve steps toward a healthier lifestyle.
Wellbriety goes beyond the usual structure, however, in that it incorporates traditional Anishinaabe teachings and practices: participants smudge upon entering and leaving each meeting, introduce themselves in Ojibwe and learn new Ojibwe phrases, read meditations written by community elders, and integrate cultural symbols such as the medicine wheel.
Wellbriety is just one of the many resources available to enrolled tribal members through the Sault Tribe’s Tribal Action Plan (TAP), a culture-based approach to reduce and prevent substance abuse and addiction in the tribal community that was established in August 2016.
After a 2014 survey revealed that over sixty percent of the community felt negatively impacted by substance abuse and addiction, the Sault Tribe composed the Tribal Action Plan’s three-year timeline and seven main goals with the vision in mind of “a healthy Anishinaabe Nation.”
As the plan nears the inaugural three-year mark, Indian Country Today sat down with TAP Coordinator Nichole Causley to discuss her involvement with the TAP, what has been successful in the past years, and what lies in store for the future.
As the TAP Coordinator, Causley manages the “programs, people, and things” to achieve the plan’s seven goals. She has been working with Sault Tribe Behavioral Health and its Tribal Action Plan since 2011, first as a community volunteer and now with the coordinator position.
Causley's passion to combat high tribal addiction rates largely stems from her lived experiences during adolescent years.
“I’ve seen the impact of drugs and alcohol in the tribal community as a young girl. Both my parents struggled with alcoholism, and this resulted in me and my siblings being removed from our home. Without a proper family structure, the community protected and raised me to be the woman I am today—the TAP Coordinator role is a great way for me to give back to the community and help others facing similar situations,” she tells me. And, through her efforts to successfully implement the Tribal Action Plan, Causley has allowed for many other culture-based recovery services and programs to thrive.
“My team works with other departments and directors, local and state partners, and other tribal partners to increase the Tribal Action Plan’s breadth. Our Tribal Advisory Board, subcommittees, and other tribal employees are constantly working to facilitate some great ideas,” Causley says.
In addition to Wellbriety, the Tribal Action Plan mandates funding for accessible transportation options. Sault Tribe Transportation Planner Wendy Hoffman expanded non-emergent medical services in the western end of the reservation. For tribal members who require treatment outside of the seven-county service area, the Sault Tribe reached an agreement with Indian Trails for long-distance transport alternatives.
Recognizing the need for Western medicine and treatments while also understanding the role of traditional medicine as a mechanism of healing and fulfillment, the Tribal Action Plan staff focuses on enriching their recovery programs with Anishinaabe beliefs and practices.
For example, the staff set up a berry-picking class at where recovering tribal members enjoy time in nature, learn the history of berry-picking among Ojibwe peoples, and share their own experiences. Sault Tribe elders lead Ojibwe language classes for younger members of the community in Sault Ste. Marie and St. Ignace. In bi-weekly talking circles, people can find common ground over shared lived experiences and offer messages of hope and advice to their peers.
Above all, the focus is on strengthening the Anishinaabe community. The Tribal Action Plan programs are all-inclusive and group-oriented, and other tribal departments have pooled their resources to become involved in the cause—Sault Tribe Housing hosted a Family Fun Night, and it recently set aside ten thousand dollars for “substance use prevention activities that the entire community can take part in.”
Causley, other members of the TAP staff, and Sault Tribe Behavioral Health at large are working hard for an even more robust array of services in the near future. Starting last week, Narcan training are available so that all community members can familiarize themselves with the symptoms of overdose and the necessary steps to provide successful emergency care.
The Board of Directors just passed a policy that ensures funding for tribal members who are unable to meet the financial obligation of inpatient detox and recovery. In the past few weeks, Causley has been working to introduce Wellbriety into local prisons that hold tribal members who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. And, she shared with me, the largest future goal is a Sault Tribe recovery hospital that is both “culturally-relevant” and “provides the full continuum of care to all tribal members.”
In addition to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the Bay Mills Indian Community is the only other Native nation in Michigan with a policy plan for combating the substance abuse crisis among Native Americans.
The Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan is currently working to help the other ten tribal nations in Michigan produce their own plans; it has proven, however, to be a relatively slow-moving process. Many Native communities in Michigan, and throughout the country for that matter, are still reeling from the destructive history of assimilationist boarding schools. Furthermore, government attacks on land and treaty rights often leave Native nations unable to financially support these necessary health interventions.
Despite challenges, many Michigan tribes are enthusiastic to implement their own prevention and reduction plans modeled after the Sault Tribe’s Tribal Action Plan. The plan structure is considered to be a “new approach to substance abuse that is rooted in culture,” and many Native nations hope to incorporate their own distinct values and practices within the context of a recovery plan.
Reflecting on her own upbringing, Causley explains that “being involved with my culture and traditional practices helped me stay on the road of sobriety and health and brought me back to center when I needed to be brought there.”
In truth, the TAP-created combination of Anishinaabe culture and more mainstream treatment methods not only helps tribal members achieve better physical health, but it grounds them in a knowledge of Ojibwe land, culture, and history that is essential for community reconciliation.
This grounding, this deep establishment of Indigenous tradition and power in our hearts, is the way that we find true healing. Illustrating this, Causley closed our interview with this:
“By including traditional ideas, we bring back our cultural identity—and with that, we bring back our strength as a people.”
Meghanlata Gupta is a tribal member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a rising junior at Yale University. She is the founder and current editor-in-chief of Indigenizing the News. She can be reached at www.meghanlata.com.