A Life Spent Helping and Healing

Healing White Sage Smudge Kit

Serving as Chair of the American Indian Advisory Council and spending the past twenty years as an addiction counselor for his Native brothers and sisters, Donald Richard Wright, Elder of the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, is still finding ways to lift people up and bring them home. Now he joins host Andrew Williams to talk about his journey and how we can better serve the Native community moving forward.

I help people to heal. And part of that is that I do continue to consult our tribal governments.

D. Richard Wright

0:00:12 Andrew Williams
Welcome to Let's Talk Recovery Equity. A series of conversations about how we can reach and help more people find freedom from addiction. Our series offers us a space to reflect on some of the complexities of substance use disorder and other mental health conditions. And to discuss new pathways to hope, recovery, and healing. My name is Andrew Williams and I serve as the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And I am the host of our series. Today, I'm excited and honored to welcome Richard Wright to our Recovery Equity series. Richard Wright is an Elder of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Who has worked as an alcohol and drug counselor for 20 plus years. He's earned degrees from Minneapolis Community College, the University of Minnesota, and the St. Paul Seminary. He entered our field in 1986 working primarily in residential settings for American Indian children and later adults. Although retired, Mr. Wright continues to involve himself with policy and the development of culturally specific treatment modalities at all levels of care. Dr. Wright is also the author of The Way of Our People published by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Welcome, Mr. Wright, to Let's talk Recovery Equity. Thank you so much for joining us today!

0:01:33 D. Richard Wright
Again, Andrew, thank you for inviting me!

0:01:37 Andrew Williams
All right, well I'd like to start by giving our audience a chance to get to know you a little bit better. So if you could, please introduce yourself. Including where you're from, maybe share some about your tribal identity and what that means to you. And please share with us your pathway toward the work that you've been doing, the healing work you've been doing, in the Native communities in Minnesota.

0:02:00 D. Richard Wright
First if I could offer just a transparency here. While I do appreciate the title and designation for Doctor, I am not a Doctor. Although I've been in the field long enough, I suppose I have earned enough continuing education units for that. But I have not earned that honor. So, the D. is reference to Donald. Donald is my first name, Richard is my middle name, and Wright is my last name. It was true I grew up in Walker, Minnesota. I was raised in Ottingham which is right across the bay in Walker. And this was in the early fifties so it's been a while since you know I returned to my reservation. But I do go back periodically. And I left there the day after I graduated from Walker High School. And actually traveled to the Twin Cities and I wanted to see the world. But I didn't have any money to do that.

0:03:16 D. Richard Wright
And so, you know, what opportunity took hold when I was walking by the recruitment station one day and I saw this huge sign that said, 'Uncle Sam Wants You to See the world.' And a lightbulb went off in my head and I said, 'Well that'd be it then.' So I went in there and I enlisted. You know, back then, that was the Vietnam War era, and it was either you could enlist as regular army or you could be drafted. Those were the two choices for young men back then. So I chose to go in regular army. I spent three years there. When I returned, I entered the University of Minnesota and continued there up until about 1975 when I went back to my reservation. And entered the then Bemidji State University. And did my studies there. Which took me into the Corrections field. I started to do some internships with Hennepin County District Court. And that was during the days we were looking at the response systems for the District Court. The disparities were that there were no American Indian probation officers. And in a sense, I became the first one. You could call that affirmative action or whatever. So I started to work in adult probation and did that for a few years. Until about 1986, I went—life changed myself and I decided at that time that I wasn't going to continue my life as it was going, which involved a lot of the use of alcohol. And one day I just said simply, 'I've had enough. I'm done.' And it was actually sitting at a bar with a drink that was in front of me and I left the drink there and walked out. And I've lived up to that since that day. Don't get me wrong, I tried treatment many times. I was there five times! [chuckles] It didn't work. At least not for me. But it did provide me with a lot of different kinds of experiences about what treatment was for an American Indian man. And I entered those treatment programs as an American Indian man that was strong in the Ojibwe culture. That knew a little bit about my language yet. And I started to work in a treatment program right here in South Minneapolis that was back then referred to as Eden House. Which is RS Eden programs. That's where I completed my internship to be certified as back then all that was required was the 18-month certification at Minneapolis Community College. That was the name of it back then.

0:06:52 D. Richard Wright
So, I was credentialed through the Institute working with co-dependency professionals. Which allowed me to enter the field at Eden House and become a CD Counselor, which I did. And it was later on there were requirements that were established by DHS which required even more education, plus an LADC. Which I managed to get that and continued my work at Eden House until one day I was looking at the Internet and decided to look at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation website. And lo and behold, there was a position that was open there. Which actually required a Master's Degree. Then I said I think I'm gonna put in for that and just see where it goes. And so I applied and actually interviewed twice and I turned them down. And then they offered me so much money I couldn't turn that down. And so I ended up at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Which was a great place to work. And since then I've been back on different occasions actually doing what they do a lot of is they have training programs, Master-level training programs, for LADC. And so I go back there occasionally to teach culturally specific diversity when it comes to the treatment of the American Indian people.

0:08:32 D. Richard Wright
I've done a lot of work on Minnesota Indian reservations. There's eleven of them. There's four Sioux reservations in the lower third of Minnesota and seven Ojibwe Indian reservations in Minnesota. And we have what we call an American Indian Advisory Council which is through DHS the State of Minnesota. And I joined that group. And then later became its Chairman. And which that old council is made up of about eighteen people that represented all of the eleven Indian reservations including urban areas that had high density populations. Such as Duluth and International Falls. And so, it was a representation of people that was striving to find better ways to serve the American Indian people when it comes to substance use disorders. And I continued to work within the DHS or Minnesota systems including March. Became part of its Governors for a while. Also taught at the [INAUDIBLE] at various levels. And so I've been doing a lot of policy work up until now. And helped to establish two intensive outpatient programs here for American Indian people, one is in St. Paul. And the other one is right here where I work now at the Indian Health Board. So we have two programs as a result of my input. All that input is representative of what you see right here in my office. When you see the big drum behind me. And that's one of our really strong culturally specific teachings that we like to offer and be American Indian because we are a culture that is very spiritually strong. Spiritually strong in a sense that we talk about medicines not in a pharmaceutical sense, but what does it do for us that gives us a sense of good spiritualism and reaction to what's going on with us. Number one, if we walk into an American Indian Intensive Outpatient program or any residential program, we're gonna hear the presence of that drum there. Either whoever's in residence there is gonna be singing on that drum in the morning, we're gonna walk in there and we're gonna smell the sage being burned in there. We're gonna smell the cedar being burned, maybe the sweetgrass, and you're gonna hear singing in there. Those are some of the strongest components of I like to say sovereignty that I became aware of as we started to develop programs on the reservations and in the urban areas.

How do we work along with DHS and establish culturally specific programming for American Indian people? And how can we specifically take a position--that does include we have an outpatient program that's culturally based; at least 51 percent of the staff need to be American Indian. Or 51 percent have to be on the Board of Directors. And so, in using that culturally specific statute, we've come to realize that we really need to establish sovereignty in Minnesota and what it means to the American Indian tribes that exist here. We need to establish what we would call 93/638 programs. Which is through the Indian Health Service, which is a federal agency. And what it means is that the American Indian people have very unique needs when it comes to treating substance use disorders. If you look at the propensity, what the trends are for what's being used out there and who's using them, the American Indian sits right at the top. We're the highest affected population in the whole state. And we wanna find a way to address that in a more realistic way. We wanna be able to heal people when it comes to how do they heal spiritually.

Like I had eluded to, I have worked with residential care programs and I have benefitted from learning about their system responses. And I certainly have taught it over the years. And for some people it works. It does work. I can't take that away from those who've experienced sobriety by using that Twelve Step philosophy.

0:13:57 Andrew Williams
Yes. Mr. Wright, I so appreciate your rich response and just wanna note and ask you a couple follow-up questions on all that you've shared. First, I wanna articulate my appreciation for your service to our country as a veteran. And I also wanna thank you for what I feel like was a really kind of instructive and important explanation of what it means to offer culturally specific SUD treatment to Native communities. That was one of the questions I had because I noted that as you served as the Chair of the American Indian Advisory Council, that you did recommend that each tribe pursue culturally specific modalities of treatment. And I think you've done a wonderful job of giving us a window into what that means for Native people. I don't know if you wanna elaborate more on that notion of sovereignty that you just kind of introduced. Or just anything more about the contours of a culturally specific approach. And I know you've done some work trying to integrate the Twelve Step model with these traditional healing modalities within the Native community. I don't know if you'd like to speak to that any further?

0:15:07 D. Richard Wright
Yes, I would. You know, what I see is really some advances that are really helping the American Indian to change from 125 into comprehensive assessment which allows us to get a better look. It allows us to tell a story about who is that person that's sitting on the other side of the desk from us, right? And so we talk about well where are you from, what reservation are you from, what clan are you from, what band are you from? Do you practice your traditions? Have you practiced your traditions? Do you go wild rice harvesting? Do you go whitefish netting? Do you halve the deer calves? Do you go up to clear brush? All of these things are cultural considerations that traditional Pueblo people have experienced, but I think one of the closest jobs that we have to us as American Indian people is our language. Right? It defines who we are as Indian people. If you were to consider that I am yes my name is Donald Richard Wright, but in reality, when I go back to the reservation, I'm also called [gives names in Ojibwe], right, and that's my Indian name. And the Indian name helps to apply to who we are and our path in this life, and really helps to bring us to a point where we are doing what our name implies. [Gives Ojibwe name] is actually a product that all of us use here every day and that's the pepper that you put on your food, right? But it's also a medicine, so we look at it—it helps our food to taste better, but we really look at the healing properties of what goes on into the ground and some people sense that root is used as a medicine and helps to heal. In fact, I think that's what I've become; I help people to heal. And that's during my position here at the Indian Health Board. I continue to maintain my credentials as I'm supposed to but I'm now a spiritual helper, right, I help people to heal. And part of that is that I do continue to consult our tribal governments.

One of those is I work with the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, for example, and I do what we call peer review. I'll go look at their operations and I really take a strong look at things and say, 'Are you really doing what you--are you providing that to the patients that enter your program?' It's not a licensing visit, but it is like an audit. You say well maybe we need to beef things up here and this is a preparation of assurances that our people are getting the best opportunity available to them. Tribal sovereignty is exactly that. It's allowing the American Indian tribes in Minnesota to take over the operations of what it is like for substance use disorder programs to have missed on their reservation. The comprehensive assessment that I talked about allows us to look at what the Ojibwe people would view in our own language is a word that we really tend to find but the word is Neechimoen meaning 'What's going on with you?' Right? And I told this man that, you know, based on what you told me here, it says in the book that you're an alcoholic, right? So it's a negative response that I provide for them. I say Neechimoen is the thing that going's on is he was getting the best—gather your helpers. Gather your LADCs, gather your mental health therapist, gather the probation officer, the Child Protection Worker, all those people that are involved in your life, they can help you if you want them to help you, right? It's a real comprehensive look at what's impacted that person.

One other thing that I really would like to see change in regards to our tribal sovereignty is we do not have enough resources to treat our tribal members. We cut them off and leave them out of Minnesota to be treated and then we bring them back to the reservation and that's where the work really starts. They can sit in an ascetic environment for 120 days or whatever, but then they come back to that same environment where they got sick in the first place, right? I'd like to see our reservations treat exactly where they got sick. And that's part of the reason why I was able to do what I did. I did not leave Minneapolis South Side area. I look to those people that I drank with on Franklin Avenue. In fact I put a boundary on them so I can't do this with you guys anymore. I said I just can't do it and I'm not going to do that. Those are the same guys that when I encountered them on the street, they would often yell out to me and say, 'Hey, Richard, are you still sober?' And I would say yeah and they'd go, 'Yay all right, brother! All right!' But then they would say, 'I wish I was like you,' and I'd say, 'You are! Look, look! See? We're the same color!' [gestures to skin, pinching forearm] 'You're my brother! And I didn't leave you, just because you're in pain. I'm here just to sit beside you and enable your spirit to feel good about where you're at. I'm not saying that you're an alcoholic, I'm not saying that you're a drunk, I'm just saying that I really want to help you with that if I'm able to.' [INAUDIBLE] My existence to sit beside them and be unjudgmental to what they are doing and that was one of the bases for the book that I wrote, The Way of Our People. It's a spiritual collection of those stories.

0:21:27 Andrew Williams
Yes and I have it here, right here, Mr. Wright [holds up book]. And I have some questions for you around your motivation and inspiration for that. But we're quickly running out of time. We never have enough time for these interviews. And if I can ask you maybe one other follow-up question before we have to close out. First, I wanna say how much I appreciate you helping enhance our understanding of the significance of sovereignty and culture and language as a part of culture, right? In sort of our approach to offering more hope and healing in Native communities. And that really important point that language is much more than a mode of communication. But represents a whole world view and it's connected to a sense of community and self-identity. As you know it's essential that that's incorporated into these culturally specific healing modalities. You know, I've had the good fortune in my time here at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to work at our Plymouth youth site. And I noted in looking at your background that you spent a lot of time working with Native young people. [Mr. Wright nods] And I'm wondering if you could share with our audience some of what you learned about some of the unique challenges and needs of American Indian youth. And how we can support them in moving toward hope and healing as well.

0:22:41 D. Richard Wright
Yeah, that was my attraction to entering this field was working with teenagers that were experiencing substance use. And those are very young children, as young as eleven years old. And they don't fit into the licensing criteria of being admitted to programs, so we have to seek invariances for a lot of these young people. You know one of the judgments that I made and I admit it is that I like to not put this little child in treatment, I'd like to put the parents in treatment. What they're doing is because of what's going on at home, right? And they face special challenges. A lot of them wanna get into things that maybe are controversial and would get into trouble for that. And one of the peer pieces that we did within that youth program, I initially started to volunteer before I was hired there, was I took them out on social activities. We would take them out on the boat and go canoeing for three days. Or we would take them horseback riding and they just enjoyed themselves. They were tough, in-your-face kinds of kids that were out there laughing and even crying because they weren't able to run with the horses, they were scared, and then just being there with them and helping them to engage themselves and their own strengths, right? That's what it was like to work with these young people. And I continue to work with young people. But you know but the field's been kind of closed on that ever since Managed Care came into existence in the early nineties. We're not able to help the adolescent as much as we would like to. With the funders and what they're willing to do to support adolescents. We were seeing that in the comprehensive assessments and we would have to label them to provide a diagnosis on what it is we think they have based on what they're telling us. And that's also a topic of controversy, can they be an alcoholic at 11 years old? They're experiencing drug use because they see it happen, right? Or maybe it's peer pressure or something like that, it's experimental, one of those aspects of going through life. And I think a lot of us had to do when we were growing up younger and were experienced in the street culture. And it's all there. It was all there for us. The controversy.

And I lean more towards that word Neechimoen, I lean more to that. What I found is that a lot of these young people they weren't functioning academically if they were in the tenth grade they have a third-grade level of reading comprehension, right? So, bringing that back up to their level, third-grade level, helping them out through that. There's kids that even today, when I see them, they'll come up to me and we'll shake hands, they'll say, 'Hey Richard, I have a car, I got married, I've got kids, I'm doing all this, right? Thanks for helping me.' [smiles big]

0:26:23 Andrew Williams
Yes thank you so much for that response. I really wish I did not have to close out our time together. Maybe we'll have to explore a Part Two. But I do wanna wrap up the one questions we always end with with all of our guests. And that is what sort of piece of wisdom, what do you have to share with anyone in a Native community now or even beyond Native communities who's really struggling with substance use disorder or has a family member or friend who is? Do you have any words to share with them?

0:26:56 D. Richard Wright
Yes, I do. And you know when I sit in this building here and look out on Franklin Avenue, and I see what Franklin Avenue has represented to the world as what's going on with our Indian people out there. It's all evident there. And a lot of Indian community leaders have gotten together and they've asked themselves what can we do. And it's a discussion that a lot of times we walk away in frustration because we don't know what to do. I think, I think that we walk about people being out there being homeless and that they're using all the drugs because they're accessible is that we extend our outreach to them even more so. And let them know that here to provide resource and to say well if you wanna go to a homeless shelter tonight, then let's do that, right? Let's just start there, right? And let's wake up in the morning and see where we wanna go from there. Right? But I think it's recognizing them as spiritual people without being detrimental to them. Accepting them where they are and what it is that they're doing. Because we know we're not gonna change them, they have to realize that change needs to come from in here. [points to chest] But the whole basis of that drum back there is that's who are, it's our heart speaking to us. They know what reasoning is, they know what affects them best, they can do that in a virtuous way and come to a decision that well, yeah, I can figure out what I'm doing and I can get back and do what I'm supposed to do, right?

0:28:50 Andrew Williams
Well thank you so much, Richard, for that response. And really for those of us especially like myself who live right here in Minneapolis and traverse South Minneapolis often daily, I really appreciate your prompt to us, your call for us not to turn our head away from that. Not to allow our Native brothers and sisters on Franklin to become invisible and for us to become indifferent. [Mr. Wright nods] And you know part of what I hear in your response as well is that this challenge to us to see them not just with our eyes but to see them with our hearts, right?

0:29:24 D. Richard Wright
Yes. [nods]

0:29:24 Andrew Williams
To see the common humanity that we share with them and to see the sprit that is within them. Which is you know of course that foundation and source of hope and healing. [turns to camera] Well to all of you listening or watching today, I wanna express my gratitude for taking the time to join us for this very important and rich conversation. Mr. Wright, I wanna thank you for sharing your wisdom, your experiences, and tremendous insights. We are grateful for the advocacy and the life-changing healing work you do each day. So thank you again, Mr. Wright, for joining us today. And I look forward to us getting better connected here in the months ahead. [Mr. Wright nods, smiles]

0:30:03 Andrew Williams
And for everyone again out there, we hope that you'll let your friends and colleagues know about our Let's Talk Recovery Equity conversations. And please come back often to catch more episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity. Together, we can advance recovery equity for all those in need. As we change how the world thinks about addiction. Thank you.

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