Recovery program connects Indigenous participants with their roots
Sanford Health’s Program for Addiction Recovery provided Tanner Lene a way to connect to a heritage he’d left largely unexplored, as he began to learn Ojibwe and join classes taught by elders and knowledge keepers on traditional medicines and art.
BEMIDJI, Minn. — When Tanner Lene was told last year that he needed to join an addiction recovery group, he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea. It seemed strange and uncomfortable.
“I’d kind of gotten into some trouble, and I had to get a chemical dependency assessment,” Lene explained. “I was placed in an outpatient program, and at first I was kind of skeptical about going to the group.”
But Lene soon found that Sanford Health’s Program for Addiction Recovery offered a lot more than just group sessions.
“Once I started going and actually opening up to other people in the group, I realized it was a safe environment,” Lene said. “I grew to look forward to it during the week.”
What really got him engaged were the culturally specific services for Native Americans that the program offered.
For Lene, these services provided a way for him to connect to a heritage he’d left largely unexplored, as he began to learn Ojibwe and join classes taught by elders and knowledge keepers on traditional medicines and art.
“I’m just a quarter Native, and growing up I wasn’t taught any of the culture or anything like that,” he shared. “As I started going there I kind of picked it up, learned more about it and started getting into it.”
The way that connection to culture has helped Lene in his recovery isn’t unusual, according to Mindie Bird, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor in Bemidji who helps manage the culturally specific services offered as part of the recovery program.
As a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, Bird knows the impact that reconnecting to Native American culture can have, and is working to provide opportunities for that as a part of the recovery programs in the Bemidji community.
“I really see the need in Bemidji for more Native American-specific cultural programming, services and support to be offered,” Bird said. “That’s what we’ve been working on and it’s been a really amazing experience.”
Since starting her employment with Sanford in 2020, Bird has been working to provide Native American programs such as medicine workshops and language classes. Later in July a new program will begin called Mending Broken Hearts, meant to work through Native American-specific grief and loss.
As the programs become more developed and word about them has begun to spread, Bird has seen the demand for these services grow.
“There’s definitely a demand for more,” Bird said. “You kind of have to know the resources in order to be able to access them, and I think more people are starting to realize the resources are there.”
Addressing a need
Bird explained that when working with Native American individuals in their recovery journey, there’s a lot of history, trauma and culture that needs to be taken into consideration.
“For Native Americans, sometimes we’re born into a world of disconnect,” Bird explained. “That can come with intergenerational trauma, distrust, dysfunctional families, and sometimes, addiction.”
A history filled with colonization, displacement and forced separation has exacerbated a number of different health outcomes for Native American communities, and substance use is just one of them.
“I myself, as a Native American, have experienced substance abuse in my family, so when I got introduced to the work as a professional it really pushed me to realize the amount of healing that it takes,” Bird shared.
Some of those Bird works with have family histories of substance abuse, while others might be the first in their families to experience it.
“I think it’s just really important to meet people where they’re at,” Bird said. “I think it definitely helps create that rapport and the trust that needs to happen for communities that have intergenerational trauma, grief, loss and distrust of our systems.”
One way to heal through these, Bird has found, is by reconnecting to the culture that in many cases was forcibly removed from families and communities.
“Separation is such a big issue for a lot of our people in recovery, the trauma of separation, the loss and the grief that comes with that,” Bird said. “Even for myself growing up I always felt really disconnected from the mainstream community, not understanding why until I got older.”
Through providing culturally specific care and support, Bird and her colleagues can offer a way to connect with Native American culture and bridge some of the trauma and distrust that have been built over centuries.
“It takes a community of people to create that connection,” Bird explained, “so we have a resource of people that are knowledge keepers, that are elders. I think it’s those types of things that are keeping people engaged, connected and sober.”
Lene shared that the programs and classes he’s attended as part of the program have helped him beyond just his recovery. Reconnecting to his heritage has also led to a developing sense of spirituality, where before Lene wouldn’t have considered himself religious.
“Since I got sober and started learning Native American culture and spirituality, I burn sage every day and I pray in the morning and before bed,” Lene shared. “It’s definitely helped me that way, to learn there’s a higher power.”
Without joining Sanford’s Addiction Recovery Program, Lene isn’t sure where he would have ended up, or if his life would be what it is now.
“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t get into it,” Lene said. “They helped me through a lot of things with staying sober and being accountable, but they also made it so I wanted to go there.”