Brent Simcosky, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s health director, stands on the site of the tribe’s future Medication-Assisted Treatment facility to combat addiction in the region. Simcosky is spearheading the development of the healing center, which will include cultural and traditional features. (Syd Stone/MEDILL)

‘Coming Home to Themselves’: Native American Nations Turn to Tradition to Treat Addiction

By Mia Mamone, Jonah Dylan and Alena Prcela

June O’Brien isn’t too worried about ghosts. She said she believes that counselors working to treat drug and alcohol dependency at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center in western Washington see tribal ancestors standing behind patients.

That’s fine by her. The center sits on two and a half acres of ancestral land in rural Elma, Washington, where members of several Pacific Northwest tribes would once gather in the summer. Here, in this remote town of 3,000 about 40 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, spirituality is just as important as mainstream medicine.

Across the country, hard-hit indigenous communities are turning to tradition to battle the growing threat of substance abuse.

From Washington to Wisconsin and beyond, tribes are using cultural activities and nature-based medicines — some dating back thousands of years — to reach and treat members struggling with addiction.

Experts say many tribal members have traditionally distrusted Western medicine and that an integrated, holistic approach to drug treatment and recovery is crucial.

“Treatment of special populations has to reflect the identity of that population,” said O’Brien, the director of the treatment center run by the Squaxin Island Tribe, whose members for generations have lived along the seven southernmost inlets of Puget Sound. “We say that they are coming home to themselves.”

In Phoenix, the Patina Wellness Center has integrated talking circles and sweat lodges with more mainstream drug treatment The center is one of 18 sites run by the nonprofit Native American Connections.

“We believe that these traditional ways are what provide us with the guidance to understand our place in nature, in the family, to understand ourselves as individuals,” said cultural counselor Dwight Francisco. “Our goal is to reconnect them to those value systems that will help them to heal.”

The focus on tradition and culture is so integral in Arizona that the state’s Inter Tribal Council, which represents 21 tribes, has urged state officials to use Medicaid funding to reimburse hospitals and clinics that employee traditional healers as regular workers or consultants.

“I’ve seen firsthand how traditional healing alleviates the stress of the situation,” said Alida Montiel, health and human services director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. “Hopefully, it helps you find out the root of the illness, helps you with the next step.”

At addiction-focused ceremonies in South Dakota, Native American Church members gather from dusk to dawn to call on spirit helpers and to commune with peyote, a small cactus with psychoactive properties used by tribal members for thousands of years. Peyote, which grows in southern Texas and northern Mexico, can minimize withdrawal symptoms, tribal members say.

Though peyote is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 allows Native Americans to use the cactus for religious purposes.

“The peyote way of life is a healing way of life,” said Sandor Iron Rope, an Oglala Sioux Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation and the president of the Native American Church of South Dakota.

A poster highlights traditional foods and medicines at the Didgwalic Wellness Center, an opioid treatment center in Anacortes, Wash., run by the Swinomish Nation. Counselors say Native American culture and tradition are essential to the healing process for patients recovering from addiction. (Syd Stone/MEDILL)

Peyote is more commonly used to treat alcohol addiction and other ailments. In Michigan, Native Americans are fighting the opioid epidemic with other natural medicine.

Fawn YoungBear-Tibbetts, a White Earth Ojibwe traditional practitioner, uses sage to help ease the symptoms of opioid withdrawal, including nausea.

In western Washington, the Squaxin Island Tribe, known as “The People of the Water,” used federal money to open its widely touted, 28-bed treatment center in 1994.

The tribe has long combined mainstream medicine with cedar-weaving, drumming and beading. Residents have access to an on-site sweat lodge for purification ceremonies and a healing garden with traditional medicine and food, such as nettles, violets and dandelion leaves.

O’Brien, the director of the center, said the oppression shouldered by generations of Indian people created cycles of poverty, trauma and substance abuse. Traditional healing, she said, is an integral part of the recovery process.

“Everything here is cultural,” she said.

Debbie Cenziper

Debbie Cenziper is an associate professor and the director of investigative reporting at Medill. She also oversees the Medill Investigative Lab. Besides teaching, Cenziper is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and nonfiction author who writes for The Washington Post. She spent three years at The George Washington University before joining the faculty of Medill.

Over the years, Cenziper’s investigative stories have exposed wrongdoing, prompted Congressional hearings and led to changes in federal and local laws. In her classes at Medill, Cenziper and her students focus on social justice investigative reporting.

Cenziper has won dozens of awards in American print journalism, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for reporting about human rights and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard University. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 at The Miami Herald for a series of stories about corrupt affordable housing developers who were stealing from the poor. A year before that, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for stories about dangerous breakdowns in the nation’s hurricane-tracking system.

Cenziper is a frequent speaker at universities, writing conferences and book events. Her first book, “Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality,” (William Morrow, 2016) was named one of the most notable books of the year by The Washington Post. Her second book, “Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” was released by Hachette Books in November 2019.

Cenziper is based on Medill’s Washington, D.C. campus, working with undergraduate and graduate students on investigative stories.