Alaska News

A PEOPLE IN PERIL: Healing the old wounds

Originally published Jan. 10, 1988. Part of a series.

The story of Alkali Lake is the story of a community's hardearned victory over alcohol. But as the people of this Sushwap Indian band learned, sobriety is just the first step.

The road to Alkali Lake is a twolane ribbon through rolling cattle country. As it dips into a narrow, peaceful valley, horse pastures give way to a double row of small frame houses. The beating sun parches the road; dust clouds chase after cars and trucks and, as they settle, mute all color.

Alkali is a dusty little Indian village like many others.

But it may be the only Native American community to win the war against booze. A 1985 documentary of its 15year struggle to sobriety has made it famous, and marked its people as heroes. To Alaska Natives, and indigenous people around the world, Alkali has become a shrine to the triumph of Native people over alcohol.

In their movie, "The Honour of All," the people of Alkali play themselves as they once were drunks whose lives were filled with neglect, abuse and selfloathing. The story tells how, in 1973, Phyllis Chelsea and her husband, Andy, became the first to stop drinking.

For two years, their neighbors watched, and continued to drink. But they elected Andy chief of the band. He ousted the reserve's alcoholic priest and turned in his own mother for bootlegging. He forced drinkers to take their government assistance in vouchers for food and clothing instead of cash that could be used for booze. His life was threatened, his car tires slashed.

But eventually, through persistence and lonely good example, he and Phyllis convinced others to stop drinking. From a 100 percent alcoholic village, Alkali became 98 percent sober.

When Phyllis and Andy first stopped drinking, they thought they had found the answer. Instead they discovered that not drinking was only the first step that the path to wellness means learning to love and trust again first yourself, then those around you.

"It's not enough just to be sober," said one Alkali resident. "You have to let go of the pain, or you don't continue to grow."

Today, Alkali Lake is a community cleansing itself of bitterness and hurt, the harvest of generations of alcoholism. The wounds are psychological gashes left from child neglect and all forms of abuse. The result was loneliness and isolation, life lived on a downward cycle that ended too often in suicide or some other form of premature death.

To heal themselves, they meet, they talk, they cry. They call their gatherings "sharing sessions," and the sessions have become part of the fabric of everyday life.

On Sunday and Thursday nights, Alcoholics Anonymous meets. Adult Children of Alcoholics meets Sunday afternoons. The Survivors Group, for victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, meets Monday nights. The women's support group meets Tuesday nights, the men's support group Wednesday nights. Sxoxomic School has an allgrades sharing session every Wednesday morning. A new support group, for young, unwed mothers, is just forming. Only Friday and Saturday nights are without meetings.

They have no trained psychologists to lead them, no textbooks, no fees to pay. Just the people of Alkali, listening to one another.

Sharing the pain did not come easily. But over time, Alkali developed its own version of community therapy, which is called New Directions. Almost everyone on the reserve has taken it, from elders to school children.

Shirley Robbins, a mother in her late 30s, quit drinking 12 years ago, but still felt miserable. She was depressed and unhappy, her attitude defeated and negative.

"I was on a dry drunk for the first 10 years," she said. But New Directions helped. In the training, "we find more answers to why we isolate ourselves, how to express our feelings, why we resent authority that's a biggie," she said. "Today we are going through a healing process. Trust is coming back."


Sunday afternoon. Nine people sit in a circle in a classroom designed to look like a traditional Sushwap underground house. A woman opens the meeting of Adult Children of Alcoholics by reading the standards and values of the 12step program, one similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Then the talking begins.

"I can remember coming home when I was little, hungry and wanting to cook something for my sister and me. I fed her, because if I didn't, nobody else would.

"But I couldn't find a knife or a pot to cook with. That's because they were drinking. And before they got started, my grandmother would hide all the pots and pans and the knives, so they wouldn't hurt themselves. I cooked once on the lid of a can. I put it right on the stove, because there was nothing else.

"After I grew up, I treated my mom real bad. I guess I was still trying to get back at her, for letting all that happen."

At a different session that day, Ken Johnson, nine years sober and Alkali's drug and alcohol counselor, shared some of his stories with a group of Indians visiting from a treatment center.

"One time around the holidays, my mom said she was going to town to get us kids a Christmas present. We were real happy and excited. When she got home, we ran to meet her. She unloaded all the bags and boxes. We looked in everything, but we couldn't find any presents. She said she ran out of money for presents. But she had two cases of wine.

"I can remember hiding under the bed, two days at a time, because my mom and dad would be fighting. I've seen my mom get beaten, her face to the floor, all cut up. I saw that as a kid. I thought, when I was growing up, if I didn't do that too, they'd kick me off the reserve."

The Thursday night Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is always in someone's home. Tonight, 15 people gather in a living room. Someone reads the opening statements of the 12step program, and the talking begins.

First a woman:

"When people were sobering up, I'd think, "I want to be like them.' I was going to AA, but still drinking. I felt I couldn't stop.

"Then my mom started taking my little girl. That's what opened my eyes up. I couldn't think of my family being torn apart. I had to hit bottom before I could open my eyes, think of my little girl, and feel as if she's going to be taken away from me. I'm lucky I still had those feelings."

Another, younger woman:

"I hit my daughter instead of the person I was really mad at. My dad said, "Why do you have to hit her on the head?' I did that, with a hockey stick, I hit her with it. I was so depressed and frustrated. I needed to talk to somebody. But I always found hitting my kids was the easier way out. After I did it, I was always saying I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm doing it. I pray quite a bit for help."


The sessions are always intense, the revelations tragically repetitive. Styrofoam cups of coffee, Kleenex and ashtrays are ever present. It is as if Alkali survives today on coffee, cigarettes and tears.

"We've come to understand," Charlene Belleau said, "that treatment is a lifelong process not a fourweek stay at a treatment center."

Several years ago an Alkali Lake band member was charged with sexual abuse. Leaders felt the community had to face it directly. "An issue like this could turn the whole community back to alcohol, or suicide," Belleau said.

Alkali's own social service staff the drug and alcohol counselor, the social worker, the homeschool coordinator all attended trainings on sexual abuse. Then experts were invited in to lead workshops.

Inviting professionals onto the reserve was a big step. "In our darkest days," recalled Phyllis Chelsea, "we didn't let anyone come onto the reserve to tell us anything."

The workshops led to the weekly Survivors Group, which meets and talks about sexual abuse. That a subject as taboo as sexual abuse is discussed freely by the people of Alkali is a sign of their remarkable openness. They feel the talk is essential.

"Sex abuse being an abuser or an abused person is a lot like alcoholism," Belleau said. "If you don't continue to talk about it, you'll go right back to it."

Another part of their healing is to become more the Indians they already are. That means reviving traditional Indian rituals and values, like the sweat lodge and the medicine wheel.

There are two kinds of sweats a cleansing sweat, segregated by sex, and a ceremonial sweat, with men and women participating together. One Sunday last October, five women prepared to take a sweat after a hard day of hauling firewood.

The lodge is formed by arching willows covered with canvas. A fire outside it heats big river rocks, and water for bathing. When the rocks glow red, they are shoveled into a hollow in the center of the lodge. The hollow is surrounded by a bed of pine boughs, pungent in the close heat, where everyone sits. The sweat is low to the ground. To get in, the women crawl on hands and knees.

Sweats have become a daily ritual at Alkali. "It's like confession to me," said Chief Andy Chelsea. "I tell what I've done to everybody in there. When we leave, it's forgotten."

The medicine wheel is a traditional Indian explanation of the world and his place in it. It is represented as a circle, marked with the four points of the compass.

At a New Directions session, Freddie Johnson kneels on the floor of a community gym, using the centercourt jump circle as a medicine wheel.

"This is a sacred circle," he says to the participants. "You are that sacred circle."

He explains how the world family fits on the wheel the red people in the east, yellow people in the south, black in the west, and white in the north.

The cycles of life are on the wheel, too. Freddie refers to the four points one is birth, one is youth, one is middle age, one is death. Every age on the circle has a special relationship with another age found by drawing a diagonal through the middle.

"If you take this one out," Freddie says, pointing to a teenager's place on the circle, "you take that one out," pointing to an elder's place across from it. "When the 25yearold dies of alcoholism, the 75yearold dies also, because he's got nobody to teach."


The Bethels and Barrows and Kotzebues, the Kakes and Metlakatlas have all turned to Alkali for help. For that reason, Alkali Lake has taken its story, and New Directions, on the road. The pressure for Alkali Lake speakers to create immediate change in communities is tremendous.

"It's true, it happens," said Shirley Robbins. "I was in White Sand, Ontario, and the people there said, "We want to be just like Alkali.' Well, you can't. Every community is different.

"Two days, three days, even eight days is not enough. We just scratch the surface. What we have to do is turn the responsibility back to the people there."

"A lot of people realize we can only share what we know," said Phyllis Chelsea. "A lot of communities do expect a lot. But we're not there to fix anything. The work has to come from them, and not necessarily the way we did it, either."

Dave Ross of the Friendship Center, an agency in nearby Williams Lake that assists rural Indians making the transition to an urban environment, said all the pressure on Alkali Lake worries him.

"It's pretty intense out there, with the whole world looking at them. I worry about two things. Will they burn out, because they don't have the resources to handle all that attention? And secondly, power corrupts. They could begin thinking they have all the answers, and they must realize they don't."

Alkali's eagerness to spread its gospel has been tempered by worries at home. There is fear that young people, never having seen Alkali at its worst, will somehow slip back into drugs and alcohol through experimentation. There is fear that Alkali Lake has merely traded its addiction to alcohol for others coffee, junk food, bingo.

There is concern that Alkali's own economic development, the ticket to independence from the government purse, will founder. Plans call for a sawmill to open next August, and later for a meatpacking plant and tannery. But their logging company has had seven years of seesaw performance, and the piggery has yet to start producing. Economic independence for Alkali Lake doesn't appear imminent.

But economics takes last place when the leaders of Alkali lake think about progress.

"A lot of people say, "Oh, if we had a better economy, better housing, more jobs, people wouldn't drink,' " said Charlene Belleau. "What we really have to do is help our people first. And all the other things will fall into place."

Ken Johnson, the drug and alcohol counselor, says a lot of people on the reserve are still afraid to change. Even Alkali, the example to the world of a Native community that has embraced sober living, lives with a gnawing fear.

"The spirit of alcoholism is still here," Johnson said. "And it will be here for a long time. A hundred years from now, we'll still need drug and alcohol counseling."


On the road back to town, one must drive slowly to avoid the cattle and occasional deer that slip from the night.

A truck with orange and yellow lights barrels past, headed toward Alkali. A logging truck, perhaps?

A quartermile on, the beam of a car's headlights strikes green glass in the middle of the road. It's a beer bottle, still cool, froth running down the inside.

Where was the truck driver headed? Maybe not Alkali at all. But the incident makes Ken Johnson’s words hang in the air: “The spirit of alcoholism is still here.”

Kathleen McCoy

Kathleen McCoy was a longtime editor and writer for the Anchorage Daily News.