AD Main Menu

Professor, an ex-addict, tackles perils of American Indians

Alan Schwarz

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The visitor to Haskell Indian Nations University detailed his roaring 20s: drug addict, garbage collector, suicidal burnout once told by a doctor that he was mentally retarded. It was a curious way to inspire a group of young American Indian students long surrounded by these types of problems. Until he got to the good part.

"I never shared this with anyone until I got my Ph.D.," he said.

His American name is David A. Patterson, his Cherokee name Adelv unegv Waya, or Silver Wolf. He is a tenure-track assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. His groundbreaking research on the pitfalls facing Native Americans is both informed and inspired by his own story of deliverance.

"Mentally retarded? I wish I could find that doctor now," Patterson said, the students transfixed.

Patterson, 49, has devoted what he considers his second life to studying the quicksand that just about swallowed him, and that continues to imperil American Indians more than any other ethnic group. About 18 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native adults need substance-abuse treatment, almost twice the national average, according to figures from the federal government. Deaths from alcoholism, diabetes, homicide and suicide are two to six times as high among Native Americans as they are among other groups, according to various studies.

During Patterson's childhood in Louisville, Ky., any interest he might have had in his Cherokee roots was discouraged by his abusive father and squelched by teasing schoolmates. By 9, he had moved from beer to highballs, and at 18 he was a Quaalude-favoring high school dropout. Detached and directionless, he pointed a loaded rifle at his head one afternoon in his basement before someone knocked at the door.

It was his mother's brother, Bill Allen. He treated Patterson's disconnection with some long-repressed family history. Allen recounted how his grandmother, Patterson's great-grandmother, was half-Cherokee, making David one-sixteenth Cherokee. He told him where she came from, the traditions Patterson never enjoyed. This expanding family lineage, which to that point had essentially stopped with his Irish father, gave Patterson a new sense of belonging. Ultimately, the two researched census records and made pilgrimages to obscure Indian cemeteries to trace long-forgotten generations, penciling rubbings off gravestones.

When Patterson found a red-tailed hawk feather on a sidewalk, Allen explained how it meant that the bird, signifying wisdom and strength, was leading him on the right path.

"Bill was the one guy I could feel Indian around," Patterson said, choking up. "Our pride fed off one another."

Still an alcoholic garbage worker for Waste Management in Louisville -- for a while he processed sewer excrement -- Patterson used this newfound past to conceive a future. He went to employee counseling and, upon psychiatric examination, was told he was dyslexic and mentally retarded; he spent five weeks in a mental health facility. But he took the diagnoses as a challenge, a new starting point. He got sober and began to work with other addicts, and at 27 entered junior college.

Growing his hair into a Cherokee ponytail and with fresh tattoos of a wolf and three tepees, he enrolled at Spalding University and earned a degree in social work. He got his master's degree and his doctorate from the University of Louisville, also in social work. He was hired by the University of Buffalo as an assistant professor studying solutions for Native American substance abuse and high dropout rates -- longtime problems caused in part, Patterson's research suggests, by the same cultural disconnection that he had felt.

The Brown School, ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation's top schools of social work, lured him away last year.

"He brings to the table new strategies, new ways and new perspectives to think about," said Pete Coser, the program manager for the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies, a division of the Brown School. "His story and experiences will be able to bring, at least, a light to those that are experiencing it now. Things that plague Indian country. How do we get over the mental monster that keeps us in that box?"

A walking movie script in the genre of Chris Gardner, the homeless single father who became a millionaire investor and was portrayed by Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness," Patterson only recently decided to reveal details of his past. And few acquaintances from his lowest points know anything about his present.

"I couldn't be happier," said Dr. Adrian Pellegrini, a Louisville psychiatrist who treated Patterson two decades ago and did not know what became of him. "The biggest miracle for people like David is that they're still alive."

Patterson's research focuses on intervention strategies for substance abusers in underserved populations, particularly American Indians. He has just finished teaching a graduate-level class on drug and alcohol abuse.

As the first American Indian professor at the Brown School, Patterson has helped connect Indian students on campus, of whom there are about 20, with their varying heritages. (Students belong to the Choctaw, Navajo and Seneca nations and a half-dozen others across the United States.) He invites them to his home to sit around a drum and teach one another Native songs.

One evening, eight students gathered in a downpour with Patterson outside the Brown building for a traditional spiritual cleansing ceremony. A student lighted some blades of sweet grass and gently waved the smoke on each student with an eagle feather. The smoke rose into the dripping trees as a student led the prayer: "We ask our creator to help us stay on track," he said, "and take this education, this training, kinship, all of this back home."

Lindsay Belone, a Navajo from Twin Lakes, N.M., is working on her master's degree with Patterson. "He's brought to the classroom a lot of American Indian spirituality and social justice issues -- honoring mother earth and our ancestors," she said. "He's definitely a leader in Indian country who I can look up to. If you want to be a professor, that can happen."

Patterson will return to Buffalo this summer to participate in ceremonies among the Six Nations of the Iroquois and speak with students about Indian challenges. He also plans to visit other American Indian communities across the nation to share his story, much as he did last fall at Haskell, the only accredited university devoted to serving various Indian tribes.

Haskell's history makes it as much shrine as school: a century ago, young Indians whose tribes' land had been seized by the United States were sent there to become Christians, cut their hair and shed their traditional customs and tongues. Students who did not comply could be beaten or chained to walls in what is now Kiva Hall. Many died there from such abuse.

Today, about 1,000 students use some of the same buildings to become one of the rare members of their tribes to earn a college degree. More inspiration came from Patterson, most poignantly when he explained why he took the name Silver Wolf. Wolves "take care of each other," he said. "Their survival depends on it."

Terry Redlightning, a Haskell junior from the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, recalled how only 17 of his 100 classmates at Flandreau Indian School graduated with him. He described a "feeling of hopelessness" pervading his community back home and said Indians there live on whatever comes to them. "Whether that's a government handout or a minimum-wage-paying job -- or you commit suicide," he said.

"Those are your options -- at least that's what the thinking is," Redlightning said. "Especially when you're a kid, you see it. You're constantly going to funerals. Death by drugs or alcohol. Car wrecks. Suicide. You don't have any high expectations."

After his lectures last fall, Patterson walked around campus to visit relics of Haskell's sad past -- the powwow grounds, Kiva Hall and some sacred wetlands. Then he went to the most solemn area of all. It was a cemetery filled with dozens of small, weathered gravestones for children who, four and five generations ago, did not survive their days at Haskell.

Patterson teared up when he saw the stones from a distance. "These are the children of the Holocaust for us," he said.

He dried his cheeks with a tissue and kept walking toward the cemetery. He looked up and saw a red-tailed hawk perched on a lamppost, leading him still.

 

 


By ALAN SCHWARZ
The New York Times