Recovery for a community

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Students on the White Earth reservation gather for weekly meetings focused on Native tradition and culture.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

In the town of Mahnomen on the White Earth Indian Reservation, about 40 sixth and seventh graders are gathered in a large room at the tribal college. They're members of newly formed organizations called the Sons of Tradition and the Daughters of Tradition.

The groups are designed to teach kids the traditional culture and values that were once common knowledge among Native people.


The meetings happen on Wednesday mornings during regular school hours. It's a time the Mahnomen School District traditionally sets aside for religious instruction release time. In the past, that's meant kids head off to local Christian churches. But a growing number of Native kids are choosing The Sons and Daughters of Tradition.

Laureen York
Laurie York volunteers each week to facilitate the Daughters of Tradition group. "If they want to come they can come. And we keep growing in numbers," she says.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"No one is making them come," said Laurie York, who volunteers each week to facilitate the Daughters group. "It's just here. It's offered to them, and if they want to come they can come. And we keep growing in numbers. And that's a real positive, because it's telling us that this is what the kids want."

The weekly gatherings always include prayer and traditional Native ceremony. Sometimes volunteers come in to talk about real problems facing kids and Native families -- things like drug and alcohol addiction, violence and teen pregnancy. The meetings give young people a chance to talk openly about what's going on around them.

Andy Favorite, an instructor at White Earth Tribal and Community College, practices traditional spiritual ways. Favorite starts the meetings each week with a prayer of thanks in the Ojibwe language, even though most of the young people don't understand what he's saying.

Favorite says he's teaching the language to them bits at a time. He says some of the kids have never been taught the culture's values and moral teachings.

Andy Favorite
Andy Favorite leads the youth meetings. "What we're trying to teach is problem-solving and decision-making, but in a cultural way," said Favorite.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"What we're trying to teach is problem-solving and decision-making, but in a cultural way," said Favorite. "You know, respect others, respect all the races, respect each other, respect your neighbors. I mean, we've got to learn to get along."

White Earth tribal member Marlin Farley helped start the kids program. Farley says changing the attitudes of young people is the best way to heal communities.

"I think kids are taking a different look about how we as Native people are supposed to treat each other," said Farley. "You know, we should behave, and, hey, we do have values, we do have principles, and we do have spiritual laws that have been given to us. And we've had knowledge of this for many hundreds and hundreds of years. And then we tossed them aside. And now it's time to bring them back."


The Sons and Daughters of Tradition is one component of a larger plan for healing and recovery in the Native community. The concept is called Wellbriety. It became popular a few years ago through an American Indian nonprofit organization called White Bison, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Wellbriety uses a 12-step model that's the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs. But it combines that with American Indian spirituality and the teachings of the medicine wheel. Wellbriety goes beyond individual recovery, to include healing within families and whole communities.

Marlin Farley
Marlin Farley is an advocate of a program called Wellbriety, which aims to help Indian communities recover from addiction and violence.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Marlin Farley grew up on White Earth. His family was torn apart by alcohol and drugs. His alcoholic father committed suicide when he was young, and he and his siblings ended up in foster care.

Farley became an alcoholic himself, and developed an addiction to gambling. In 2001, Farley hit rock bottom. He was miserable and considering suicide.

"I was running from myself and I was running from the law," said Farley. "I had some outstanding warrants from a DUI and bad checks from the gambling. And I was running away from accountability and responsibility. I was full of fear. I didn't like jail, so I ran."

Three years ago, Farley began exploring the programs of White Bison. He attended a White Bison conference and was inspired by a chat with the organization's founder, Don Coyhis.

"It hurt to see our young ones dying," said Farley. "It hurt to see so many people just kind of walking around in this lost way, and hurting each other. So I asked Don Coyhis if there was any way he could help the Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota."

We've had knowledge of (these values and traditions) for many hundreds and hundreds of years. Then we tossed them aside. And now it's time to bring them back.

Farley was trained to be a Firestarter, someone who's committed to White Bison's Wellbriety program. Firestarters commit to lead a circle of recovery for four years, and hold recovery meetings once a week.

Farley got a free book from the organization called "The Red Road to Wellbriety in the Native American Way." The book had a huge impact on him, and he now reads passages from it daily. Farley became convinced Wellbriety is the best way to bring wellness back to Native communities.

"I think that a community first needs to recover," said Farley. "I think a community has to recover from alcoholism, a community has to recover from drug addiction, the community has to recover from violence, including domestic, lateral violence. And I don't believe that any other change can occur prior, without us as individuals becoming healthy. And then it moves into our healthy families."

Farley says Wellbriety goes beyond sobriety. It's about Native communities learning to nurture physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

Last year, Farley coordinated a Wellbriety training session in Bemidji. More than 100 people from White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake took part. Farley says many of those volunteers are now creating small but growing pockets of people dedicated to Wellbriety programs.

Farley says the goal is to make systemic change by creating Wellbriety coalitions on all of the reservations.


One of the components of Wellbriety is a program called Warrior Down. It focuses on Native people who return to the reservation after spending time in prison or in chemical dependency treatment programs.

Farley says when those people come home, they're coming back to the same unhealthy families, friends and communities. Even with the best of intentions, most ex-prisoners and addicts fall back into their same old patterns.

The groups are designed to teach kids the traditional culture and values that were once common knowledge among Native people.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"You've got this thing that happens," said Farley. "When you're coming out of treatment, you're coming out of incarceration, there's a population, a segment of the community out there that is saying, 'Welcome back home. Here's a keg, here's a joint. Sorry you had to go through all that, but we're here, we're ready for you. Welcome home, bud.' Then the party is on."

Warrior Down creates a network of healthy people to support those returning from prison or treatment. Farley keeps track of who's coming back, and when. He and others reach out to them to get them on the right path.

Farley has a degree in social work, but he doesn't get paid for his Wellbriety efforts. He says no one does. It's purely voluntary.

Farley says the grassroots efforts get no funding from tribal, state or federal governments. He says the key to success is finding people committed to making a better future for Indian communities.

"I have this realization that it doesn't work from the top down. A government can't say, OK, we're going to implement this stuff, and this is the way it's going to be, and everyone is going to get well and that's it. It doesn't work that way," Farley said. "To get the community healthy we need to work together, without any federal funding, without state dollars, without tribal government dollars. We need to just start giving of ourselves."

Besides Wellbriety, there are other pockets of people who are using tradition and culture to make a difference in the lives of kids.