NARA center uses Native American traditions to treat addiction

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Philip Archambault and Scott Buser stand in the center of a fire circle, one of NARA's group therapy treatments that incorporates Native traditions.Hidden on the side of Highway 30 near Cornelius Pass Road is a substance abuse treatment center with an uncommon mission.

The Native American Rehabilitation Association, more commonly known by the acronym “NARA,” was started in 1970 by a citizen group that was concerned about Native Americans with alcohol issues.

NARA approaches addiction treatment with an emphasis on Native American tradition and spirituality. The treatment model is based on the medicine wheel — a symbol of Native American religion with four quadrants representing the four directions — north, south, east and west).

NARA’s fourfold approach emphasizes health, mental health, sobriety and culture.

“We were integrated before integration was cool,” said Jackie Mercer, CEO of NARA.

In its beginning, the association was run out of just three houses. Now, there are a total of eight sites in the Portland area. The residential treatment center on Highway 30 has a total of 70 beds for patients and has rooms for eight families and 12 children.

A cultural bridge

NARA reaches patients mostly by word of mouth, Mercer said. Although NARA is contracted to serve Oregon’s nine tribes, the natives in need of treatment that NARA receives aren’t only from the Northwest, but from all over the nation. “People from 250 tribes, nations and bands refer to NARA,” Mercer said.

Mercer added that, although there is a negative stereotype associated with Native Americans and alcoholism, proportionally Native Americans statistically abuse alcohol less than any other culture.

“People seek relief from trauma,” she said. “Yes, we may have a greater use of substances in a negative way, and we can line up the disparities, but if given the chance, we will thrive... we know treatment works.”

Philip Archambault, NARA’s cultural director, has been with the association for 31 years and is in charge of providing treatment to patients through ceremonies and traditional practices.

Archambault said Native Americans identify with the treatment methods NARA uses better than in facilities without a cultural focus.

Archambault said Native culture is being lost. Traditional Native knowledge and values used to be passed down through families, but reservation boarding schools have had to continually decrease their focus on Native American coursework, Archambault said. NARA provides a way for Native Americans to reconnect with their cultural traditions, he added.

Time-honored methods

One of NARA’s treatment methods is the use of the sweat lodge. Located at the back of NARA’s Residential Treatment facility, the two sweat lodges—one for men, one for women—are five-foot tall domes constructed of willow branches and blankets. The floor of the sweat lodge is raw earth and in the center is a 12-inch-deep hole, made to hold red-hot rocks which the leader of the sweat lodge pours water over, creating a climate within the lodge that is much hotter than modern saunas or steam rooms.

“The sweat lodge is our church,” Archambault said. “Traditionally we sweat for five to six hours. Here we only go for 90 minutes. Since there are people coming off of drugs and alcohol, we need to ease into it.”

NARA’s treatment sweats are broken-up into four rounds, or “doors,” where seven hot rocks are added to the pile at the beginning of each door. Archambault said the first door consists of singing to call the Great Spirit, the second door involves singing and praying, in the third door the patients are able to speak their mind and, in the last door, a thanks is given to the Great Spirit.

Everything said during the sweat lodge ceremony stays within its blanketed walls. The sweat works as a form of group therapy, Archambault said.

Archambault incorporates the use of tobacco in many of his ceremonies, too, which also include the fire circle and talking circle, both of which involve the four directions and a focus on talking about personal feelings.

“It’s all about you,” Archambault said in regard to the group therapy sessions he leads. “It’s your turn, talk about you... It’s okay to cry.”

Scott Buser, NARA’s residential treatment director, said a patient’s typical stay can range from 45 days to six months. “We don’t actually do the detox here,” he said. “Patients need to be clean for 72 hours first.”

Michael Everly runs the medical facility at the center to meet the needs of clients with a variety of ailments. Everly said one of the big advantages to patients at NARA’s Residential Treatment Center is availability of vitamins.

Children staying at the center with their parents have access to a full classroom with two teachers who provide constant support five days a week. Rachel Scott, children’s case manager at NARA, said there are currently seven children staying at the facility between 5 and 6 years old.