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Reconnecting with culture helps OSH patients work toward recovery

An elder from Washington's Chehalis tribe, leads a Saturday morning Red Road to Wellbriety group

Larry, an elder from Washington's Chehalis tribe, leads a Saturday morning Red Road to Wellbriety group. The group combines elements of Alcohol Anonymous's recovery model with traditional Native American beliefs and practices. Larry works as a group facilitator for the Native American Rehabilitation Association and has been involved in OSH's Native American services program for the last year.


For many Native American patients at Oregon State Hospital, reconnecting with their culture can be a major step in their healing process and recovery.


When Doug Styles, a Native American enrolled in the Klamath and Modoc tribes, first came to Oregon State Hospital, he was holding on to more than a century's worth of bitter feelings and resentment. His anger over the mistreatment of his ancestors and the deterioration of their culture led him down a destructive path that ended at the hospital.


"I've had to learn how to deal with my negative views appropriately, because if I don't, then I'm not being respectful of my culture," Styles said. "I've learned we should forgive rather than harbor hard relations against people, and that's been a real important part of it for me."


The hospital serves approximately 60 Native American patients at any given time. And while every patient has his or her own unique set of circumstances, Native Americans share a common history marred by tragedy and a culture that has been largely abandoned. However, as Styles is doing, many Native Americans are finding answers by learning about and reconnecting with their traditional ways and beliefs.


"Culture's the prevention, and culture's the cure," said Cynthia Prater, OSH's Native American services coordinator. "It prevents illness, and it heals illness. So if we know our culture, we can use it to heal ourselves."



Although records of Native Americans being treated at the hospital date back to the 1800s, it's only been in recent years that clinicians have integrated elements of their culture into their treatment. The impetus for this change was a 1996 agreement between Oregon and the state's nine federally recognized tribes that established a government-to-government relationship between the parties.


Today, OSH offers its patients regular smudge and sweat ceremonies, as well as a popular 12-step group known as Red Road to Wellbriety, which combines Native American beliefs with recovery concepts from Alcoholic Anonymous. Patients can also participate in a wide range of groups and classes focused on Native American history and traditions. These types of activities help patients connect with their culture and develop a sense of identity.


"To know where you're going, Natives believe you must first know where we've been." Prater said. "The classes are like putting pieces of a puzzle together, and then they can start to sort out their own identity. This also opens up the door for therapeutic interactions about their feeling and emotions around some of the events that happened to their ancestors."


David Barrick takes part in a smudge ceremony with rehabilitation therapist Mike Patton

OSH patient David Barrick takes part in a smudge ceremony with rehabilitation therapist Mike Patton. In Native American culture it is believed that the smoke both purifies people and carries their prayers to Creator. Smudges are a held on a regular basis as part of the hospital's Native American services program.

While the groups and ceremonies are geared toward patients with Native American heritage, they are open to anyone.


"There's just something about the Native American way and culture that speaks to a lot of the difficulties that people with mental health issues face," Prater said. "There's a spiritual piece and message that I think our residents here are really in tune with and appreciate."


That message, which is centered on the idea of letting go of their anger and embracing ideas such as acceptance and forgiveness, often helps patients – no matter what their background - quit looking back and, instead, focus on what's ahead.


"If you carry the anger around with you, eventually it's going to turn in on you and you're going to become a hateful person," said Sonny Sage, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe in the Teton Mountain Range. "Our past isn't the greatest thing to look back on sometimes, so as a Native American, I now look ahead to the future."