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Red Lake Drug and Gang Summit: Speaker: Alcohol part of 'historical grief'

Cecil White Hat presents "How Alcohol Came To The People" at the third annual Red Lake Drug and Gang Summit Wednesday at the Humanities Center in Red Lake. The two-day summit continues today. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

When Cecil White Hat was 5 years old, he stood in the back of his dad's car in Mission, S.D.

The streets were jam-packed with cars. It was 1953 and the first day it was legal for American Indians to buy alcohol.

White Hat described the scene he witnessed as a young boy in his presentation, "How Alcohol Came To The People," Wednesday at the third annual Red Lake Drug and Gang Summit in Red Lake. The two-day summit continues today.

White Hat, a Lakota Sioux who is originally from Rosebud, S.D., recalled that day in 1953.

"That whole town was packed," he said.

When the liquor store owner opened the store that day, nobody went in for what seemed like a long time, White Hat said. Then, one American Indian man entered the store, bought alcohol and walked outside - with no arrest. After that, White Hat described, there was a stampede on the store.

White Hat said his dad later told him, "Our communities went down very fast after that."

White Hat, who now lives in St. Paul, is a principal planner and program consultant with the Minnesota Department of Human Services Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.

In his talk Wednesday, White Hat gave a historical overview of grief and loss and the dynamics of oppression.

According to White Hat, implicit in the term "historical grief" is the belief that historical grief is present because of unresolved historical trauma. The loss, he noted, became apparent with the start of the reservation system. He said American Indians began to see that their way of life was ending.

With oppression came the steady erosion of spirituality, culture and language, White Hat said. He said the grief from the losses continued, namely the loss of hope. Oppression also spurred dependency and learned helplessness, he said.

"We learned to depend on the federal government," he said.

He said among the catastrophic events compounding historical grief were boarding schools.

"This is where our culture was forbidden, the language was forbidden," said White Hat, who noted that he grew up in the boarding school system.

He also said the legalization of alcohol was a catastrophic event. He noted that, among other things, it further deteriorated the family structure.

White Hat said research suggests that federal policy is to blame for laying the groundwork for rampant addiction of American Indians to alcohol.

"For many decades, American Indians have carried the blame," he said.

White Hat suggested several cultural remedies. He said for the individual, love and acceptance of being Indian is the first step. He also said the restoration of the family is needed. Another remedy, he said, is the healing of a people and culture. He added that where people find historical grief and loss, they also can find historical strength and healing.

Summit continues

This year's Red Lake Drug and Gang Summit, which includes several speakers and break-out sessions, is featuring the theme "Positive Lifestyles For A Positive Life."

"We're trying to promote a positive lifestyle for everyone - native and nonnative," said Tom Barrett, who helped organize the summit and is the director of the Red Lake Chemical Health Program.

The summit has more than 200 registered participants. The summit's mission is to educate and mobilize tribal agencies, professionals, schools and community members in the efforts against drugs and crime on the Red Lake Reservation.