Radical Love and a Place to Belong

Semiahmoo First Nations and Earl Marriott Secondary, White Rock, British Columbia, Canada celebrating 9-11 March 2018. Pow Wows are opportunities for First Nations to gather, honouring and sharing their heritage and traditions including music, dance and beautifully vibrant regalia. The general public is welcome.

Philip Robert won't stay silent about the exploitation of his Native brothers and sisters: in Arizona, unregulated sober houses are taking advantage of vulnerable people. But Blue Sage Healing, where Philip works, is providing a safer home for recovery, a place of belonging, with a rich cultural connectedness that reunites Native folks with themselves, their ancestry and their people.

I don't care what you've done in your life, take a deep breath. You have purpose.

Philip Robert

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. This series offers up a space to reflect on some of the complexities of substance use disorders and other mental health conditions. And to consider new pathways to hope, recovery, and healing.  I'm your host, Andrew Williams, the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And I am the host of our series. And today, I'm honored to welcome a very special guest, Philip Robert. The Founder of Blue Sage Healing. Hello, Philip. Welcome to our show! Thank you for joining us today.

0:00:52 Philip Robert
[gives greeting in Native language] How are you all doing today?  I'm very honored and blessed to be here.

0:00:57 Andrew Williams
All right, well we are honored to have you as our guest and appreciate your time and presence with us today. I'd like to start off by just giving you a chance to introduce yourself to our audience today. To tell us a little bit about where you're from, your tribal affiliation, and tell us a little bit about your pathway to the healing work that you're doing with others at the Blue Sage Healing Centers.

0:01:18 Philip Robert
Thank you, I appreciate you. I'm a grateful recovering addict. I'm dual diagnosis, mental health issues and challenges. I'm from Elorin Indian community, I'm Makima O'odham and White Mountain Apache. But I'm from Hela River. I come from Arizona, home of 22 federally recognized tribes. And one tribe striving for federal recognition, the Hia C-ed O'odham people in southern Arizona, the Sand People. I'm first of all, I'm a volunteer. And also I'm a child of God the Creator. And I thank him for being here today. And I volunteer for Blue Sage, I volunteer my time there. Helped start with my boss, Kevin Molson, from Natuflambeau, we're a Native-owned and operated facility. Where I manage and facilitate traditional services, such as Wellbriety, the Talking Circle, Sweat Lodge. I also bring in elders, Medicine People, to come in and help our people heal and teach. And my source of passion comes from my own healing and understanding of where my intergenerational trauma comes from. You know, starting with the doctrine of discovery. The boarding schools. The loss of our river, the Hela River. And all that has brought to us, the trauma that has brought to us, where our ancestors built a farm, and where the pain comes from, from that. And also how I have learned to overcome my challenges in life. I want my other people, my family diaspora of tribes, 'cause we belong to—our inner circle belongs to other inner circles. And those circles belong to a bigger circle which is called Indian Country today. Indian Country. So that's where my passion comes from. I want people to know they can heal themselves. They can live life. With freedom from drugs and alcohol. They can learn to manage their mental health. Yes. Thank you.

0:03:48 Andrew Williams
No, thank you, Philip, for that introduction and giving us a sort of sense of your pathway into the healing work that you do. And how what's really fueled your passion for this work are your own lived experiences, moving through recovery and bearing witness to the impact of intergenerational trauma, of substance use disorder, among other issues in your communities there in Arizona and around the country. You know, I noted when I looked at your website that it says that in January 2020, the American Addiction Association declared that Native Americans would benefit from treatment with culturally sensitive programs. But none were available. Your website then goes on to add, 'Hey Blue Sage is everything that the American Addiction Association declared Native American communities needed.' And I heard a little bit in your first response of introducing yourself and the work of Blue Sage, you spoke to what really kind of makes Blue Sage distinctive. Could you maybe unpack that a little bit, the origin story of Blue Sage Healing Centers? Your role there that you've spoken to a little bit as a volunteer, and again what are some of the distinctive healing modalities that you pursue?

0:04:58 Philip Robert
Thank you, thank you so much. Yes. So, you know, we started with just five Native brothers and sisters who wanted to bring this healing to our people. And we have some little bit of means, means and ways to do this, thanks to Kevin Molson, our Director and Owner, and he allowed us to help with this. So like you said, in order for Native Americans to recover and prevent recidivism, right, you have to be connected to your spirituality. Be connected to your culture. And be connected to your community. Your spirituality, you know? Whether it be Christianity or any other religion, or traditional ways, be connected to your culture, right? It's very important because when you wake up in the morning, you'll see yourself in the mirror, who are you, you're an indigenous person, an indigenous brother or sister, right? And also you have to be connected to your community. Where can I go for spirituality, where can I go for housing? Where are you gonna go get groceries? Are you going back to a little town back on the reservation or village? Are you gonna come back to Arizona, do you wanna stay in Phoenix or any other city? Get connected to that community. Where are you gonna go for your Medicine Man? Where are you gonna go for your Christian church? You know, your Muslim church or whatever—you've gotta be connected. So we ask our family—I don't like to say clients or patients—I like to say our family. 'Cause really they are our family. We're all, you know, a lot of us are intermarried now through the tribes. And so, a lot of times, when they hear that drum, they come into Blue Sage, they'll get smudged, you know, so here your sins are forgiven, you've got to start forgiving yourself. And they start hearing that drum beat. Boom, boom, boom. And a lot of times—sometimes when they first get there they come up from the streets, they want this, they're hungry for the smudging. They smell that—it smells like home. They hear that drum, they start crying. We have our staff there, Indian sobriety staff, it's almost a four-year-old staff that's there that every year somebody else gets it. and they see that staff, they see those feathers there, that each tribe has put their feather on—on the staff. And they know that people are praying for them. Their prayers are with them. You know, so that's very important. The ceremonies and all that encompasses love. Love, love, since time immemorial we've been sitting in circles, talking circles, since time immemorial. And that medicine goes in a circle 'cause energy goes in a circle. When you light that smudge, the circle, the smoke goes in a circle, our eyes are circles. Energy, it doesn't die and it goes in a circle, you know? So that medicine comes around and it helps us. Thank you.

0:07:56 Andrew Williams
No, Philip, thank you for giving us a window into some of the specific kinda dimensions, the different kind of expressions, of the healing work that you and others do. At the Blue Sage Healing Centers. And maybe to offer my own language onto it, what I hear is that connectivity, right, is at the center—

0:08:12 Philip Robert
Yes. Yes.

0:08:13 Andrew Williams
So sort of the thread that runs across all of your healing modalities, right? Helping our Native American brothers and sisters get better connected to self. Better connected to community and family as part of that.

0:08:25 Philip Robert
Family, yes.

0:08:26 Andrew Williams
And to go deeper, and to build that connective tissue back to our cultural traditions. So I hear that thread of connectivity is really central to your different healing modalities as well as that radical ethic of care and love that I hear so strong in your voice and in your presence here today.

0:08:43 Philip Robert

0:08:43 Andrew Williams
And you mentioned in your response there, Philip, the centrality of smudging and the impact that smudging can have as you come together in different healing contexts. And I noted in prepping for our interview that it looked like you were burning some sage. I'm wondering if you could help us to understand, you know, what is the cultural significance of Blue Sage, which is the namesake of the organization that you work with.

0:09:08 Philip Robert
Well, Blue Sage—so these medicines that we use are nothing without the Creator. So just to represent we're symbolic people, right? So, sage represents the forgiveness, purifying us, cleansing us, that the Creator gives to us. We each have to learn to forgive ourselves and move forward. The sweetgrass, you know, also cleanses us, reminds us of who we are. And the cedar symbolizes the providence the Creator has over us, the protection He gives us, and how we are to also conduct ourselves with others, our family, everybody. Not just the indigenous people, everybody! Over here we teach Native American 101 which means Being Human 101. Being a human being, you know? And we have talking circles, we have an [INAUDIBLE]. And we use the traditional medicine wheel, in which are colors of the human race are represented. All people are welcomed, you know? [holds up medicine wheel to demonstrate] We talk about the Africans, the Asians, everybody; we're all interconnected, you know? And this is what we do, this is what we—we're all human beings, we're all brothers and sisters. And this is what we do, we pray for everyone and everything.

We start off with the air we breathe, the water, our ancestors—without their love, we wouldn't be here today. We wouldn't be here today. We're connected to the past and to the future and to the present, you know? And we pray like that. And I tell people when we're in talking circles, I tell them to close their eyes. Think of something that they love, who is that they love—can you hear them? Do you hear them talk, can you smell them? Do you remember that emotion? Then I ask them now, to close your eyes, continue closing your eyes, and pray for them. Send to them love. Because our prayer doesn't know [any] dimensions, it goes through time, you know, and they'll get the prayers. And the initial time they'll cry, you know, and if they have passed on to the next life, then, to move forward is to—to move forward that's one way we're gonna see them again. Not to go backwards. Not to go backwards using drugs and alcohol. Or food or anything outside ourselves to make us feel better. Thank you.

0:11:32 Andrew Williams
Thank you again, Philip, for really another rich response. And I think what really resonates for me as I listen to your response and reflect on it is your kind of really expansive sense of solidarity, right? And again kind of echoing the centrality of connectedness to the healing work, the medicine, that you offer. And this expansive notion that moves across time and space, right, and involves reconnecting with the spirits of our ancestors, who are around us and guiding us and supporting us.

0:11:57 Philip Robert
Yes. Mmm-hmm.

0:12:03 Andrew Williams
And at the same time what I hear is this really beautiful and powerful vision of like, hey, no matter what your tribal affiliation, you know, you're a brother and a sister, and you are welcome here at our centers. And even a sense of solidarity that goes beyond being Native American. And so, that's some of what resonates for me in the answer you shared. And to build on that, I wonder if you could help our audience to get even a clearer picture of who are you serving, what are some of the demographics of the patients, those who come to you for healing and medicine? I get a sense you're in an area that's highly diverse in terms of very diverse tribal nations and other cultural communities as well.

0:12:45 Philip Robert
Yes! Well we serve all 22 federally recognized tribes. And we serve the tribes that come from other parts of the country. But a lot of them come from the streets, you know, there are certain areas where our Native people hang out and they gather and they're just hurt. And then, the bonding together, the tribal bonding they have there and they look after one another, but our people are dying. They're dying, you know? And it hurts us so much because also, I wanna get into another subject but, we have a lot of these sober living homes. That are not treating our people very well at all. They're giving us them all drugs and alcohol because of the money, right? And yeah, that's one of the challenges that we're facing. Is these homes, you know, they're not being regulated correctly. You have Medicare up here, right, and then you have these other insurances, right? Well there's more policies and more procedures to go through to get these other insurances, right? But with American Indian Access, it's easier to make claims, that's why everybody's in the business of "helping Native people," [uses air quotes] you know? They want the money, you know? And they're doing everything they can, going to the reservation, they call them bodysnatchers, they're going up there and they're taking our people. And I just recently had another friend, sister, she got murdered, you know? Trying to be that 1 in 1,000, got ran over. And we got another sister that overdosed and she can't move her body, she can only scream to communicate. I have so many people that have died.

We have four years ago, Arizona decided to make a law to have a study to find out where our missing and murdered indigenous women are coming from. And we're finding that they come from these homes. [Andrew nods.] There's thousands of them in just the Phoenix area alone! And they're trying to get their money, they're trying to bring 'em in, they're giving them drugs, they're giving them money, you know. And also too they're being trafficked there. I know personally women who are being trafficked, sexual trafficked, you know? And making our job harder, you know, at Blue Sage. 'Cause people they know if they come to Blue Sage, they're gonna get urinalysis tested, they're gonna get bag checked, right? And they always say, 'Oh, Blue Sage, they're too strict!' Why would you go to us sometimes when they can go over there to the places where they can get drugs, they can use still. I'm sorry if I went off track a little bit with your answer, but I just wanted to bring that up.

0:15:26 Andrew Williams
No, Philip, not at all off track. And I really do appreciate kind of some of the connections you're helping us to tease out. And in particular, how you've really helped us to encourage us to focus our attention on the exploitative dimensions, right—

0:15:43 Philip Robert

0:15:43 Andrew Williams
That some organizations within our profession have. With Native American communities. And I think you push us all to write critically to think about what are some of the real motivations, right, behind the kind of expanding interest in serving Native American communities with more addiction and recovery services. And I really appreciate the ways in which you link and push us to really critically interrogate that exploitative relationship. And how that is intertwined with this really significant issue around which there's been way too much silence in our society around missing and murdered indigenous women, right? Which is just one face of the really high morbidity rates—

0:16:20 Philip Robert
And brilliant people, too!

0:16:23 Andrew Williams
Mmm-hmm. Say more, please.

0:16:25 Philip Robert
No it's not just the women they are finding out we're having a lot of men going missing too, you know? Because what they do is they get—if a Native person gets upset and they cause trouble there, they say, 'Just get out!' And they'll kick them out in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, in places where they don't know where they're at. And well then they'll go back to drinking again, maybe they'll get drunk, maybe they get in a fight and get stabbed, you know? There's a lot of people at the morgue, county morgue, that they don't—they can't find who they are. And then there's some housing around the area where there's human trafficking going on, sexual prostitution and stuff, and some of these ladies get back into that, you know? It's a very, very vulnerable population, very vulnerable. And so, but that's why it's very important the work that we're doing at Blue Sage. Very important that we're doing there. And we have a family there, we really do. We have good people there, you know? And it's working! We're working, you know.

0:17:26 Philip Robert
We also go to volunteer match and there on the Hela River Reservation, where we work with animals, you know? And help with the ranching work, there are horses—you get to ride the horses, you know. And a lot of people already know about horses, they know about the animals, you know, and the sheep and how to take care of them. And it's really connected to the Earth and to the land and the animals. It's also helping them. So we thank you, Miss Lorraine Wellington, we thank you so much for having us come out there.

0:17:56 Andrew Williams
I appreciate you kind of helping us have a broader understanding, develop a broader picture, bigger picture of the diverse types of work that you are doing. And especially appreciate and really hear your radical ethic of care, your personal sense of care, the organization's care, especially for the most vulnerable. And the ways in which you're helping us to more fully understand at least begin to wanna critically examine some of these issues. The relation between healing organizations, treatment organizations, and Native communities. I know you mentioned, right, that one of the difficult points in relationship is in these residential facilities. But from your website, it also looks like you're working with some diverse set of residential facilities to improve the quality of care—

0:18:42 Philip Robert
Yes, yes! Thank you.

0:18:48 Andrew Williams
That Native peoples are receiving. I wonder if you could maybe speak to that.

0:18:50 Philip Robert
Yes we have a core of residential homes that we approve, that we actually go there and visit. We go in contract with them, you know, that we are allowed to go there anytime and visit the homes. And we approve them, we go through a process. And we make sure that these homes are good to go when we send our people there, you know? And these homes, they allow their people to come, family to come here five days a week, you know? And they allow us to pick them up for events. 'Cause not everything can be taught in the classroom. We like to go—we get invited to the Hopi dances in Hopi Land, different parts of the Navajo nation. All over Arizona and also we harvest our own medicines. You know, sweetgrass and different medicines to use in our ceremonies. So that's what we do. So, yeah, we have a good working relationship with them. We know what homes not to work with, there's some homes that we looked at and we're like, we're not working with you, you know? We know a lot of places where we're not supposed to be working with, yeah. So we work with the good homes that we approve of. Thank you.

0:20:05 Andrew Williams
No, Philip, thank you. And it's good to learn about that work and to know that you are working in partnership to establish some alternative treatment, kind of residential experiences, that really push back against some of the more exploitative kind of practices of other facilities. You know, our time is moving much too quickly and I wish we had a lot more time, but I'm gonna move us toward closure with just a couple more questions. And one is, as you think about some of the positive impact that you've had on the community—and some of it is really apparent in what you shared with us already. But are there one or two stories of healing, of recovery, that really resonate with you? Or is there perhaps a partnership, an ally that's really stepped up for Blue Sage to help you advance your mission? Could you speak to one of those?

0:20:56 Philip Robert
Yeah, well, seeing our people move forward with their lives, because we don't want them to be stuck at Blue Sage, we want them to move forward with their lives. And to go on and create other healing places or going to work. You know, I love to see—we have a lot of good examples of people moving on with their lives and doing good with their lives, you know? And I love to go—we did a couple videos, one sister we did, she's from Hopi Land, Shungopavi village, and we went there, we did a video testimonial, you know, and all her kids they loved on her, you know, and to see that reunification of family—

0:21:31 Andrew Williams
Mmm. Yes. [nods, smiles]

0:21:33 Philip Robert
That's the best. When fathers and mothers can come back to their families, you know, and get that visitation, start working on that road to become a full-time mommy, a full-time daddy. You know, being with them in court, you know, seeing them go from not having any visitation to getting that one-hour visitation, two-hour visitation, or weekends. You know, I just love to see families come together. In general that's what really--it's about family, you know? We have a family atmosphere at Blue Sage.

0:22:01 Andrew Williams
Yes. [nods] Thank you, Philip, and in some ways in answering that question, you answered another question I was gonna ask. Which is what's the relationship between individual and community healing? And I think you just named it, right? That family is that bridge, right? Between individual and community healing.

0:22:16 Philip Robert
Yeah 'cause what we do the circle, we do to ourselves, you know? The healing--the hurt of one is the hurt of all. The healing of one is the healing of all is what we say in Wellbriety, you know?

0:22:26 Andrew Williams
Mmm. [nods]

0:22:27 Philip Robert
And so that's—we pray for everybody. And what we do the circle we do to ourselves. So, that includes hurt and healing also. So we're trying to create more healing, more positivity, we love to hear the people laugh. There's nothing better than hearing a Native person laugh, or anybody laugh! That internal exercise, you know? It makes us laugh, you know, and smile. And that's what we're all about at Blue Sage, you know?

0:22:56 Andrew Williams
Yes, no I'm a firm believer in the medicinal power of laughter as well.

0:23:00 Philip Robert

0:23:01 Andrew Williams
As we move toward closure, Philip, I'll ask you the question that we ask all of our guests in our Recovery Equity series. Which if you could, what are maybe some words of counsel, of advice, some words of care, for anyone out there in our Native communities or even beyond who are struggling with substance use, substance abuse, and/or have family or friends who are? What are maybe some words of wisdom you have to share with them?

0:23:26 Philip Robert
I have the perfect words from my elder, Al Puli, a working father of the Family Association. I don't care what you've done in your life, take a deep breath. [exhales] You have purpose. That's purpose. You are worth more than your worst mistake. You are worth more than your worst mistake. I don't care what you've done. The fact that you're still here, breathing, the Creator hasn't had the wherewithal to take you out yet—you have purpose. You are worth more than your worst mistake. Thank you.

0:23:59 Andrew Williams
No thank you, Philip, for that last statement and words of care. [smiles, turns to camera] To all of you listening or watching today, I want to express my authentic gratitude for you taking the time to join us for this very important conversation. And Philip, thank you very much for sharing your wisdom, experiences, and tremendous insight. We are so grateful for your advocacy and the life-changing work that you do every day. Thank you, Philip.

0:24:25 Philip Robert
Thank you very much and to everybody who's helped me, I want to acknowledge everybody, we're all interconnected. Thank you.

0:24:31 Andrew Williams
Thank you. And to everyone out there, please let your friends and colleagues know about these important conversations. And come back often to catch more episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity. Together, we can build a healthier, happier, and more equitable tomorrow. Thank you. [smiles]

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