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Red Lake gathering pushes for sobriety, wellness, healing

RED LAKE -- 300 days of recovery. 537 days. 10 years.

Speakers at the outset of Red Lake’s Community Wellness Gathering on Wednesday morning, many of them health workers, talked about their journeys to sobriety, which were fraught with arrest, loss and loneliness.

“Everybody, friends and family, they were dying, they were OD’ing and everything, and I wanted to be one of them,” Randall Sam, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, told the crowd at Red Lake Nation College. “I did OD once, and when I came out of it I was alone, and that’s the most alone I ever felt in my life. About three weeks after that was when I made a motion to get sober.”

Sam, a member of a recovery group called Sober Squad, said he used to think drinking for days at a time was normal. His new, healthier life is all new to him, he said.

“The Creator put me here for a gift, and my gift is to make other people happy and proud to be sober,” Sam said. The audience clapped and cheered when said he’d been in recovery for about 300 days. Many wore “SOBER” commemorative T-shirts.

The two-and-a-half day wellness gathering is designed to promote sobriety, holistic wellness, and healing, organizers said, and be a catalyst for positive change in the Red Lake area, where widespread opiate use prompted tribal leaders to declare a public health emergency in July 2017. Speakers like Sam are meant to be held up as success stories.

“Too often, our conferences are about the addiction and the drug busts and everything that's going wrong in the community,” said Tom Barrett, executive director of Red Lake Chemical Health. “We want to put the focus back on...the good things going on in our community.”

That means a workshop about healthy and traditional foods, another about drum assisted therapy, and others about medicine wheel teachings, pow wow zumba, and more. Most, if not all, had a distinct bend toward pillars of Ojibwe culture -- the gathering’s theme is “a return to tradition” -- and that’s by design.

“What we've found is that a lot of people who get into recovery, they have been able to maintain it just by vowing their traditional ways and learning more about it,” said Floyd “Buck” Jourdain, former Red Lake tribal chairman and wellness coordinator at Oshkiimaajitahdah, a human services arm of the Red Lake tribal government that offers a range of job training, child care, food and cash assistance service, and recently added a wellness department.

That sort of cultural connection evidently helped Shandelle Friedman, a Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa member who also spoke Wednesday morning.

“I got a sponsor and started working the steps, but the biggest part of my recovery is my spirituality,” Friedman, who said she’s been sober for 537 days, said. “I really think that it’s important for us in recovery to lean on our higher power, and, for me, finding my identity as an Anishinaabe was a huge part.”

The wellness gathering has another slate of speakers and workshops scheduled Thursday and Friday.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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