Straight Talk with Joe Nayquonabe


By Brett Larson, April 6, 2015

Mille Lacs Band Elder Joe Nayquonabe understands addiction. He worked as a chemical dependency counselor for decades.

He also understands it from a personal perspective: He was a drinker and a three-pack-a-day smoker before he quit both cold turkey back in 1980.

Joe’s impetus for quitting all those years ago was simple: He was getting a checkup with Dr. Bracken in Onamia, and Bracken used the word “diabetes.” Joe’s mind started spinning at that point, and he didn’t hear the rest of what Dr. Bracken had to say. At the end of the doctor’s speech, Joe said, “So when do I have to start the needles?”

Bracken was confused. He hadn’t said anything about insulin shots. “That’s up to you,” Bracken said. “Do you smoke?” Joe said he did. “Do you drink?” Joe said he did. “Well, if you quit doing that, maybe you won’t need any shots.”

Eventually Joe, like many Native Americans, did develop diabetes, but he figures he got about 15 extra healthy years by quitting booze and cigarettes.

“Many of the guys I drank with are dead,” he says. “If I would’ve kept drinking, I probably wouldn’t have made it this far.”

He points to statistics showing that over the course of 20 years, 70 percent of Indian deaths in Minnesota were due to alcohol and drug abuse. “If that were happening in society as a whole, it would be a state of emergency,” he says.

‘They know’
Joe doesn’t think there’s a lot of mystery to Band members’ problems with addiction — most recently in the news because of the large number of opiate-addicted babies born to Mille Lacs Band members.

Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin made it a major part of her State of the Band address, calling it “the single greatest threat to the future of the Mille Lacs Band.”

“People know the consequences of their actions,” Joe says. “They know that our children are gifts from the creator — not gifts to you and me but to the community.” He cites the adage “It takes a village” and says, “We were doing this way before Hillary. That’s what communities do. They look out for the well being of each other.”

One thing the Band doesn’t need, he says, is another study. “I think we’ve been overstudied,” he says with a grin. “We say our roads are bad, so they come and do a study and say ‘You’re right. The roads are bad.’”

People know, but they can’t always find what it takes to quit. From Joe’s point of view as a counselor, there’s one thing that separates those who quit from those who don’t: honesty.

Joe points to the fourth step in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

Those who fail to achieve sobriety are often those who fail to be honest. And what holds true with individuals also holds true at the community level, Joe says.

“We’ve all got character defects, but we need to face them. Our community needs to do that too.” He says there’s too much finger-pointing, blaming, gossip and jealousy on the reservation in general, and especially among addicts.

Joe believes that “historical trauma” — due to the centuries of abuse Indian people have suffered — plays a role in addiction and in the Mille Lacs Band’s problems, but he also believes it can be used as a crutch. He’s worked with people in treatment who blame their substance abuse problems on “the white man.” Joe says, “I don’t see the white man holding a gun to their heads.”

Drinking and drug abuse are symptoms of something else — and what that is can only be found through honesty. “What comes with that honesty is a lot of pain,” Joe says. Sometimes that pain is what stops people in recovery. “Some of these guys, I would get close to what’s going on, get within a hair, and all of a sudden they’d drop the wall on me, and I’d have to call it a day. Once I hit that wall, I knew I wasn’t gonna get in there, not with a jackhammer or an atomic bomb.”

Joe says some of his best sessions were when he said nothing. Once he listened for a long time as a group of men complained about bail bondsmen showing up on the day per capita checks came out. Finally Joe cut in: “I’ve been listening to you for two hours, and you make some good points, but how about if you all behave? Then they wouldn’t have to come over here.”

Joe says people need to stop asking for more and start looking for ways to help others. “It’s the old John Kennedy thing: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ I tell people in the community, instead of saying ‘Can I get a hotel room?’ or ‘Can I get a food voucher?’ we should be saying ‘How can I help?’”

Joe heard about a girl who was having trouble getting to school on time, so he offered to pick her up every day. When he was asked why he did it, he said, “Because I’m an Indian man. It’s my duty.”

Joe also sees a need for compassion for those struggling with addiction, as well as their victims. “It’s not just the babies, but the person who’s taking it is also being affected, and the people in the community. They’re having their houses broken into. They feel violated, vulnerable. There’s other things that come along with that heroin.”

He remembers a few years ago when some young men working with youth got in trouble for coming to an event drunk. Joe was at a meeting to determine what should be done about it. He said the feelings were very negative toward the men. “When they came to me, I said, ‘They’re wounded. What do we do with our wounded? Do we shoot them, or do we help them? They just displayed their wounds. We should treat them and give them a second chance. If I didn’t get a second chance I wouldn’t be here.’”

They didn’t listen to Joe. The violators were fired.

Restoring sanity
Another thrust of the State of the Band address was “cultural sovereignty,” a term symbolizing the importance of the culture to the health of the community and individual Band members.

Joe agrees that culture and spirituality are also keys to stopping addiction. “I’m a big believer in mind/body/spirit,” he says. To be healthy, you need to give attention to all three — but “spirituality” doesn’t have to be a typical understanding of “God.”

Band members sometimes give lip service to the importance of culture and language, but they don’t follow through, Joe says. “If I left here back in the 1970s and I walked into that ceremonial building, I could tell you where people would be sitting today. And I don’t think there would be any new people there.”

He tells the story about another survey done with Band members, who said they wanted parenting classes. This was when Joe and Rita still had young children. They went to the class that was held in response to the survey, and they were the only ones there.

Joe sees the importance of spirituality in the second step in AA: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

“Right now our reservation is insane,” Joe says. “Look what we’re doing to our children. Look at what were doing to our families. We’re killing each other. In order to restore us to sanity, we need to get back to the culture — drums, Midewin. So many people here are unaware of the culture, and when you get them in treatment they say ‘I have a problem with God in (the second step).’ I tell them to put ‘creator’ in there, or ‘manidoo,’ or just cross that part out.”

Some are resistant to attend ceremonies because they don’t know the Ojibwe language, but Joe says that should not deter them. Even Joe, who didn’t speak English until he started school, doesn’t consider himself fluent in Ojibwemowin.

“I do see them wanting it, but there’s some guilt or shame there. Sometimes they’d open up to me, ‘Joe I don’t go there because I don’t know the language.’ I tell them ‘You need to go there, and things will start happening.’”

Take it from Joe. He’s seen changes in others, and he’s seen them in himself.

Joe says he’d be happy to talk about these issues, or what he said in the article, with anyone who is interested.