By Kendall Duffie
The NARA (Native American Rehabilitation Association) Youth Residential Treatment Center (YRTC) is found in a nondescript building just outside of downtown Gresham; enter through the lower door and you are immediately washed in fluorescent lights, which illuminate a long hallway dotted with open and closed doors. A dreamcatcher hangs above a reception desk, but the front desk staff member, Ronnie, is nowhere to be found. It’s warm inside, and friendly sounds, laughter and chatter, are audible even down the hallway. I’m surprised to see the cloth that covers the table in between the waiting room chairs—it’s tan and has a distinctly tribal pattern on it, very similar to the ones I’ve seen on T-shirts and handbags in department store chains across Portland. This pattern is clearly appropriate here, in a center that celebrates and encourages specifically Native heritage, but begs the question: why do I, a white female hailing from one of the whitest cities in the country, recognize it?
Andrea Robideau comes to get me from the waiting room. Drea, as she goes by, works as a residential aide and mental health associate with the YRTC; she is enthusiastic and talks fast, short black hair swinging as she walks me past doorway after doorway. Later, Drea will tell me that there is really no time that she hasn’t been involved with NARA; in fact, her first job was helping with childcare when the program was still very small. “I was kind of born into it,” she laughs, explaining that she has been coming to NARA programs for family activities like powwows or gatherings her entire life. Her mother worked for NARA once as a tobacco abuse specialist, but Drea is clear in stating that even she has relatives who have used NARA rehabilitation programs, and she doesn’t seem the least bit ashamed of it. There is no shame that I pick up on in here at all; every single employee and helper, as she tells me, is “a healthy adult who is ready, willing, and able” to help young people. While walking down the hallway, we go into the office of Denise Wickert, a Youth Program Coordinator who specializes in suicide prevention. She is warm and friendly, long black hair framing her face, immediately making me feel welcome in her office by introducing me to her brother and a tribal elder who stand beside her. She and Drea discuss a new book she’s just gotten on blood quantum; while they talk, I see what looks like drums set up above the mantel of a fireplace. Drea tells me a story about a Lakota woman whose husband was plagiarizing her scholarly work; in response, the woman documented the rest of her research in the Lakota language, making it impossible for him to take credit. Drea and Denise laugh when they hear this story retold; it strikes me as a clear example of a Native woman taking control of her mind, and seeking credit for her work in an atmosphere where it was unusual. There is art and literature everywhere I look in Denise’s office; I have never seen or been in a place that celebrates Native American heritage like this before.
I have come for a special time at the YTRC—it’s family night. The center is really divided into two sections; Upstairs, where the residential clients live, and Downstairs, where I am now. Upstairs is locked behind a set of grey doors, with only clients and staff allowed in. Downstairs is lush with furniture and decorations; deep leather couches and an arcade-style basketball game are set up in one corner, above which a giant cornucopia is painted. There are children, mostly toddlers, everywhere, sounding up a racket as they run circles around the tables. Three teenage girls stand behind a table laden with food; buns, meat, vegetables and condiments are all laid out. There is noise coming from every direction—the exclamations from the tween boys playing D&D, the clatter of serving utensils being laid out, and the low buzz of individual conversations make the room feel warm and full. This is the first moment that I can see that NARA YRTC is truly a family program; I had expected that the youth treatment center would be cold and quiet, not echoing with the happy noise of generations of people, Native and non-Native, coming together to share a meal and a conversation. Ironically, underneath the cornucopia, I am almost reminded of Thanksgiving. Drea and I sit at a plastic table as visitors and staff are served their dinner. Ronnie has been found, ponytail tucked over her shoulder; before we eat, she reads us a prayer. All around, heads are bowed, voices are silenced, and hands are clasped. Even the children, who should be too young to understand the meaning of the prayer, listen with attention. Afterwards, we sit down across from a residential therapist with beautiful, long black hair and dangling earrings who listens as Drea talks, occasionally offering her own opinion and perspective as I am filled in on some statistics.
NARA YTRC is a inpatient center for youth under 17 struggling with addiction; the YTRC inpatient program is the first of its kind in that NARA works mostly out of outpatient offices. Drea tells me that most of the YTRC’s clients come from the greater Portland area; however, NARA is connected with the nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon—the Burns Paiute, Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw, Grand Ronde, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Coquille, Cow Creek Umpqua, and Klamath tribes—so clients can sometimes come from farther away in Oregon. Even within these tribal parameters, many clients identify as descendents from tribes in different states, and therefore all possess drastically different traditions and cultural backgrounds based on this context—that is, if they are Native. While NARA does give priority to Native peoples and their descendents, clients of other races can also be treated with NARA’s inpatient and outpatient resources. All religions and practices are accepted and accommodated in the 26-bed YTRC program; while NARA does use White Bison curriculum (a program specifically catered to provide culturally and historically relevant treatment for Native peoples), strongly identifying with one’s Native culture is not required. However, if a client does want to maintain that connection, there is no end to support and resources available. Drea mentions that this is where the tribal elders are so vital to the program; elders can sometimes connect with or understand more about what a client is feeling at a specific time. She uses a Root Festival as an example—in one tribe, the impending harvest may be celebrated with family and friends, and missing this event could cause a client to be distraught and upset, especially if no one around them recognizes or even knows that this day or time was particularly special to them; she equates this feeling as similar to missing Christmas. This is where an elder could step in, as an older community member, to comfort or reassure the client.
It’s hard for me to imagine this place feeling intimidating or scary; staff members are constantly coming and going, holding cups and plates, huge smiles on their faces. I can immediately sense that this program asks a lot from its clients—I feel weight in each person’s gaze when we make eye contact—but in a way that reinforces expectations and goals. Understanding the background of every client is necessary; it very clearly must be an active choice to become well here, but the YTRC makes sure that every inch is supported by adults.
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The United States has had an increasingly turbulent relationship with Native people; decades of genocide, discrimination, and systematic dehumanization through boarding schools and other processes has left many Native communities destabilized from historical gender and family roles. There are 566 federally recognized tribes in 35 states; each tribe is classified as unique, possessing their own language, traditions, locations, and culture (Robideau). Tribes are classified as sovereign nations, and receive federal aid, though the program is extremely underfunded; The Center for Native American Youth estimates that Congress only provides 50% of the resources that are needed. Of the 5.2 million people who identify as American Indians/Alaska Natives, only 2 million are eligible for aid; eligibility requires membership to a federally recognized tribe and sometimes, must include proving blood quantum (how much Native blood one possesses; it’s a term that has been both radicalized and stigmatized in many communities).
Even for those able to receive some kind of government aid, there are still issues crippling communities that have not been addressed. 23.6% of Native people are living in poverty, in conditions Gallup Independent describes as “comparable to [a] Third World”. Only 70% of Native youth will graduate from high school, in comparison with the 82% of non-Native teens; even starker are the chances for students attending BIE (Bureau of Indian Education) schools, where the graduation rates plummet to a bleak 53% (Partnership with Native Americans). Native men are incarcerated at more than four times the rate of white men, killed by law enforcement at almost the same rate as Black men; American Indian youth are three times more likely to be in the juvenile justice system than non-Native children of the same age (The Sentencing Project). There are more deaths from alcohol poisoning than any other ethnic group, with 9.2% of Native youth ages 12+ self-reporting as ‘heavy drinkers/alcoholics’ (Recovery). After all this, suicide is the second leading cause of death in Native communities, 17 times above the national rate (Center for Native American Youth). These statistics are rightfully alarming, but pose the question: why? Why are these numbers growing without being addressed? Why is the cause of such pain and distress continuing to go untreated, unclassified, unidentified?
The answer to all of these questions may be a psychiatric term brought into the media’s attention by behavioral scholar Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, who helped to develop the theory of ‘Historical Trauma’. Heart identified behaviors and symptoms in her own Lakota community in relation to the history of trauma, along with other community members whose families were victims of the Holocaust; author Marianne Hirsch describes the concept of generational postmemory as the generation after a trauma event experiencing destructive behaviors (alcoholism, anxiety, depression, addiction, etc) because of the personal, collective, and cultural memories passed down through learned behaviors, images, and stories (Hirsch). Hirsch says that, “these events happened in the past, but their effects continue into the present” (Hirsch). At the conclusion of her groundbreaking paper, “Wakkisuyapi: Carrying the Historical Trauma of the Lakota,” Heart argues that traumas not addressed and treated can continue to be ingrained in future generations, which in turn perpetuates the cycle of unhealthy coping and actions (Heart). Future scholars have investigated minority communities also affected by traumas (Native Americans, African Americans, Holocaust victims, etc), finding the same patterns of generational cycles of violence. They find the same patterns, same symptoms, and they all may have the same solution: culturally sensitive treatment options and support options, and the reinforcement of positive, healthy, adult role models from the community. These treatment options give patients the choice to address their trauma, and providing them an opportunity to have productive and proactive expression. This is exactly the theory that NARA follows—giving clients access to treatment that is designed to combat the cultural and historic stressors that may impact their functions and livelihood. The diagnosis and treatment of those struggling with the effects of Historical Trauma is a conversation that is just beginning, but for many Native communities, it’s a dialogue that has long been in the making.
‘Upstairs’, the place at NARA I have heard so much about, sits just out of reach from the main room; adults come and go from the grey double doors with their badges front and center, but no children ever follow them out. It makes one wonder who they are, or what has happened to get them here. Drea tells me that clients are usually brought to the YTRC by word of mouth; sometimes, when someone asks for help, they can be brought to a separate outpatient office during intake time. Other times, an authority figure—DHS case worker, probation officer, parents, tribal liaisons, etc—will step into the mix and say, “This kid doesn’t need to be incarcerated. They really need some treatment. If they had healthier coping skills and a support system, they won’t have to go this route” (Robideau). From there, clients are given an intake packet and after the consent of legal guardians, can begin the inpatient program; treatment is usually paid for through private insurance or by the Oregon Health plan. Options from there are limitless; clients partake in activities ranging from therapy and counselling to digital storytelling, studying for their GED, or participating in cultural events. Medical providers at NARA are usually Native themselves; Drea stresses that while strong white allies are valuable to the program, the importance and vitality of having Native role models is integral and essential.
And how does NARA know that all these things, these programs and activities, have been a success? Drea tells me it’s when families, the next generation of Native people, have been in the NARA system for so long that they trust and expect NARA programs to work, and to help struggling members of their community; when NARA gives them the tools to keep their families healthy and whole, “so they never have to end up in juvenile justice. They never have to start being dependent on drugs or alcohol” (Robideau). Drea says that juvenile justice is not justice, but just a repetition of a debilitating cycle. Drea mentions that she had worked in other mental health facilities before coming to NARA YTRC; she says that upon seeing how these other treatment centers functioned, she thought, “How are we going to better our communities if our kids are getting in trouble, and growing up in foster care, and then they are going through these types of treatments that are making it worse, that further hurt their spirit?” (Robideau).
This facility is unlocked; patients have the option to leave, if they really wanted to, but in the five months since their opening, the YTRC has seen 17 clients come through their doors, resulting in 2 graduations and two transfers from the program (NARA consider transfers to be successes, as clients transfer to receive more specific care at other locations). NARA’s clients are taught that they have other choices besides substances, that there are better ways to cope, and that there “are a whole lot of healthy adults that are ready, willing, and able to help them” (Robideau). That’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot during my time visiting the YTRC—‘ready, willing, and able’. I can see now that this statement means more than it appears to; it means that a whole world of possibility and healing that can be achieved with just one step in the right direction, and that step is NARA; that wellness is a choice, and it’s a choice that once chosen, will never be regretted.
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The prayer that Ronnie reads before dinner is short, and beautiful; evocative and ancient, the words remind me of something that Drea has told me before. “People think that Indian people are getting free health services,” she says, “they think that we get free this or free that, but what they don’t understand is that nothing is free. Our ancestors—sovereign nation to sovereign nation—made arrangements. ‘We will seed these lands, we will step away and we will agree to go to this reservation, if your government will agree that we have the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to our traditional hunting and fishing’” (Robideau). The story of American colonization that is taught in schools barely stops to mention that a sacrifice—a sacrifice that has been paid forward by billions—was made by Native peoples in order for the United States as we know it to today to exist. This coursework fails to mention the crucial detail that a population was dehumanized and fetishized, murdered and raped, forcefully removed from sacred land and homes, in the pursuit of the romanticized, white American dream. Drea’s voice drops in tenor when she tells me firmly that “a person who is tribally enrolled or is the descendant of a federally recognized tribe goes and gets services… that’ve already been paid for with the work and blood and sweat and tears of our ancestors” (Robideau). Nothing is free; the Native peoples of the past protected and saved their children, and the children of their children, and forever onward, from the burdens and horrors they suffered in the only ways that they could. NARA is one of those organizations committed to making sure that that sacrifice was not in vain, not for a minute; looking around NARA’s family room, alight with light and laughter, the future does not seem bleak, but one fruitful with possibility. The Native people of Oregon are not extinct or fragments of a time long ago; “WE ARE STILL HERE… WE ARE STILL THRIVING…” (Robideau). It’s a beautiful thing that I’m witnessing here at NARA, in every person and place—this is the most selfless example of devoting oneself to the preservation and care of an entire people, and entire culture, that I’ve ever seen.
Before every meal at NARA, a plate is filled with a full serving: meats, vegetables, bread, fruits. This plate is taken from the table and out the door, coming to rest on the ground outside of the glowing EXIT sign, completely exposed to the elements. Whoever has brought this plate goes back inside, turning their back on what lies before them and retreating instead back inside towards a glowing warmth. Sometimes, people say that leaving this spare plate just provides food for animals; mice and birds will surely scavenge the paper plate by morning. But, if the stories of the Native people inside are true, these animals are not vermin but their ancestors, taking a different form in a separate plane of existence in order to interact with their descendents. They aren’t gone, not by a long shot, but are present, watching over.
In the beginning of the Oregon treaty laws, the United States government forced warring tribes onto the same reservation lands in the hopes that hundreds of years of conflict could prompt them to kill each other off; they placed a bet that the ‘problem’ of Native peoples would resolve itself by the means of generational, violent conflict. Instead, warring tribes across the United States put aside their differences, put aside years of ingrained pain and loss, to band together (Robideau). In doing this, they saved themselves, and saved the some five million Native peoples who would come after them to flourish, and to fight.
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