Native American culture creates an alternative path to sobriety
October 15, 2013 4:00 AM
David Smith, founder of the Yellowcorn Native American Recovery Center, shows how he burns sage to purify the area before a meeting.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
People who walk clockwise around an altar of sage, sweet grass and cedar before their regular sobriety meetings know a different path can lead to recovery.
Thirteen people followed that ritual at a recent talking circle of the Yellowcorn Native American Recovery Center, a 3-year-old outreach that co-founder David Smith calls "a service from a native American cultural perspective," an alternative to the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which he said do not resonate with many Indian people.
Mr. Smith came to Pittsburgh four years ago, having achieved his own "clean date" on March 25, 1989, he said. In that effort, elders showed him the healing powers within his own culture.
Alternative sobriety services are few and Yellowcorn is the only Native American support center in the state, according to the Three Rivers Council of American Indians.
Yellowcorn holds sessions from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sundays and from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays at the Onala Recovery Center, 1625 W. Carson St., on the South Shore. Onala provides a social home for people in recovery and space for sobriety meetings.
Although AA is the most established program, said Jean Coyne, prevention and intervention supervisor with Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, she added, "There's no one size that fits all."
"There are so many ways in which people have a shot at remaining sober," said Corrie Wright, network administrator and executive assistant at The Center of Spirituality in 12 Step Recovery in Homewood. "We try to get people into services that have spirituality."
Before each talking circle, participants walk clockwise around the altar, which includes a drum and a feather.
"We ask them to go clockwise to help them get back into the flow of life," Mr. Smith said.
He begins the session with a prayer to the Great Father. Then a Navajo participant drums and sings. A purification ceremony follows. Mr. Smith walks around the circle carrying the smoking bowl of sage, sweet grass and cedar. Participants who accept the smoke wave it four times each toward their heads and their hearts.
The ritual is meant "to open our minds and our hearts, to let go of our negativity," Mr. Smith said. "The longest journey a human being must make is from his head to his heart."
He runs the sessions with Mike Sallows, a homeless outreach and support employee for Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's Operation Safety Net. Mr. Sallows' participation in Yellowcorn is unrelated to his employment, but he has introduced the circle to homeless clients.
Treatment facilities and behavioral health services also refer to Yellowcorn, which operates on voluntary donations and does not dispense or get federal benefits for treatment.
"If this is purely a support group, there is no need for licensing or accreditation," Bob Adamson, senior director of Behavioral Health Services for the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, wrote in an email. "Support programs are important adjuncts to treatment services that greatly assist with someone's recovery."
Melissa Collins, an outpatient therapist at Gateway Green Tree, said Yellowcorn "has been bringing meetings to our patients and is a great asset to our organization."
Jamie McLaughlin, a social worker at Allegheny General Hospital's Positive Health Clinic, said she referred one patient "who asked if there was an AA meeting for Native Americans. The experience has been very positive. Dave also has been very helpful in getting other patients to AA meetings [not his own] and into housing."
Mr. Smith said he hopes to reach more Native Americans but welcomes anyone. Most people in the talking circles are not of Indian blood.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 that about 7,000 of Allegheny County's 1.2 million people identify at least partially as Native American. Three people in a recent talking circle besides Mr. Smith identified as such.
One, Terry, said he was homeless and met Mr. Sallows from Operation Safety Net.
"We used to talk," he said, "and while AA is good, as a Native American, we have a different way of dealing with problems."
Several people not of Indian blood said they have found a bond in the talking circles. All last names are withheld in AA's tradition of anonymity.
Debbie said she met Mr. Smith three years ago at an AA meeting at Onala.
"He told me about his talking circles and I started going," she said. "I don't want to say anything against any process that works for people, but I like the spiritual aspect of this. I was so afraid of step four -- facing the people I had hurt -- but something happened to me in this group. I realized I was denying the world the life that was me."
Diane said she had always been her own worst enemy and hated herself before realizing "what a jerk I was. I was killing myself and there are people who are sick who wish to live. The only group that ever helped me was this one."
Kevin attended AA meetings in prison but said he started going to a Native American group meeting. Now living in a halfway house, he said he chose the talking circle in part because people are attentive.
"I've been to some other meetings where half the people were [looking at] their phones. In this circle, at first, I got the feeling people thought I was only there to get a paper signed" as required by court order. "But then they started asking me how I was doing."
Before starting Yellowcorn, Mr. Smith introduced the Native American spiritual path toward healing in prisons.
"What I am trying to do for my people I want to do for all people," he said. "We are all connected and learn from each other. But I realized the severity of the [addiction] problem among Indians. It has taken us away from our cultures and traditions.
"The day I surrendered [to sobriety], I had gotten sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and disrespecting my children," he said. "I was living in York, and I got on a bus to Wilkes-Barre" and checked into a rehab facility near his grandfather's cabin.
He said Pittsburgh attracted him because it is "a spiritually centered place" owing in part to the three rivers. "When I got here, I knew my mission was to start a native recovery service. I believe this is a good place to grow."