Scott Robert Ladd
The place is known as Indian Park -- three trees, a city-owned utility dome, and a park bench adorning a tiny triangle of ground at the crossing of three inner city streets. To the north, the steel and glass towers of downtown Denver rise above the liquor stores, bars, and homeless shelters that surround the park.
My companion at Indian Park was David, a Native American with the dream of creating a tradition-based treatment center at an abandoned ranch in rural Eastern Colorado. By converting the remote ranch into a place of spiritual and cultural healing for Native Americans, David hoped to heal people in a place far away from poverty and hopelessness. David has -- and continues -- to fight his personal battles with drink and drugs; he knows intimately the life people live on Denver's skid row.
I was nauseated by Indian Park's stench of liquor and human waste. On the bench, amid a scattering of empty liquor bottles, three unkempt Native men sat and shared a bottle of Wild Turkey. After David introduced me, and the oldest man, probably in his late fifties, shook uncontrollably as he gave me a hug. The younger men give me the "Indian handshake," and ask if I have money to "loan" them.
David tells the men about his healing community, explaining how they might benefit if only they would be willing to swear off drink. None of the men seem interested -- or even completely coherent -- and we leave soon to drive around the area. People lie under bus benches, lounge in doorways, or simply stand staring at nothing. Alcohol is an equal opportunity killer, but it is especially fond of Native Americans. Recent medical studies have shown that Native Americans do not produce an enzyme that removes liquor from the blood stream, making Indians particularly vulnerable to alcoholism.
"The bars aren't open yet," said David, as we drove. "So they've got nothing to do." David explained how liquor stores blatantly exploit alcoholic Natives, and I later watched one of these transactions take place. At least one establishment in Denver provides "post office boxes" for its Native clients. When the monthly tribal or federal checks arrive, the store cashes them to cover the previous month's credit for alcohol. Many liquor stores illegally convert food stamps to credit on booze, at fifty cents on the dollar. Welfare is no "benefit" for the people I saw -- government support only supports drug and alcohol habits.
The problems are not isolated to large cities. In Colorado Springs -- pop. 300,000 -- a network of bridges marks the intersection of several major thoroughfares, highways, and Fountain Creek. I once lived less than a half-mile from the site, but it's an world away economically and culturally from the experience of most Americans. Beneath the bridges and along the stream live Native Americans. One bridge houses seven Dineh? (Navajo); across the street, several Apaches have made their homes.
"It's a good place!" said Freeman, a young Dineh? acquaintance of mine. "The road keeps us warm and dry. And the police don't bother us; they know we're here." A week later, the city police rousted the residents from beneath the bridges and out of the shanty towns. Makeshift shacks were torn down, and residents vanished to other areas of the city.
Two days before the police raid, I gave Freeman and his friend Pete a ride to Walgreens so they could buy mouthwash. They expected to be hired the next day for some construction work; the two men had been drinking, and the mouthwash would remove the stench of alcohol from their breath. When asked why they drank, Pete said "What else do we have to do?" Pete later forced a dollar bill into my shirt pocket -- a show of pride from a man who saw no future for himself.
Jonah isn't homeless or uneducated, but he ended up on the streets. This young Dineh? man is articulate, intelligent, and educated; when we met him, he was hitchhiking cross-country to his family home on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Once in Colorado Springs, Jonah's backpack was stolen. I gave him some old clothes and 5 bucks; he asked for corn pollen, but we had none. He prayed in our front yard, and he promised to send some pollen to my wife once he reached Arizona.
The next morning, a friend called to tell me that Jonah had been hurt. While hitchhiking, Jake was attacked and beaten by several men who screamed racial slurs at him. The hospital put sixteen stitches in his head, and the Colorado Springs police department bought him a bus ticket home.
I was shocked by the number and condition of Natives on the street. Most had moved to the cities hoping to find an economic opportunity that does not exist in their homelands. What they found was a harsh life of disappointment and racism. They've exchanged the hopelessness of the reservation for the hopelessness of the city.
Medical care for urban Native Americans is appallingly non-existent at worst and demeaning at best. In many cases, alcohol provides an anesthetic for Natives who cannot obtain needed medical care. I've been surprised at the number of Natives who have severe dental problems. One man, who had lost an arm, was told by social services that he couldn't receive help unless a doctor certified that the arm was, indeed, missing!
Stacy suffered an allergic reaction to drugs given her by the local alcohol treatment center. My wife, Maria, took Stacy to the county hospital. In the same hospital where Maria had been recently treated with care and concern, Stacy met with indifference and disdain. Stacy's tribal insurance eliminated finances as the cause of the hospital's attitude. The difference seemed to stem from Stacy's homelessness and her dark Dakota features. Maria is also Native -- but her skin is lighter and she is more often classified as "Hispanic."
Of course, society does not restrict homelessness, substance abuse, and poverty to Native Americans. I find it disturbing, though, how pervasive problems are in the Native community. Nearly every urban Native I've met has had a drinking problem at one time or another. Families seem made to be broken. Natives on the street are utterly, completely, and fundamentally abandoned by their peoples. If the dominant society does little for Native people, the Native community itself does even less. When a Lakota friend recently began drinking, I found few resources and little family or societal support. He wasn't dangerous; he was depressed and in need of help.
I see virtue in the theory that an alcoholic cannot recover until they want to -- yet I wonder where these people can recover to? Many Natives return to substance abuse because they go from treatment programs back to the same sense of despondency. Pride in being Indian is absent, drummed out of them by a dominant society that belittles their history, beliefs, and culture. Their lives are a vicious cycle of reform and relapse.
I've spoken with elders about traditional Native values, including the importance of family and spirituality. The elders, unfortunately, lack the resources to help their people. In most cases, the struggle to survive keeps families and friends from helping. Only a handful of Native activists seem to be building resources to help their brothers and sisters.
While many Native leaders talk about grand political issues and the atrocities of the past, they ignore the genocide occurring on city streets. Sovereignty is freedom from external control -- it is the right of a people to control their destiny. Sovereignty is taken, not given. How can the Native Nations be free when so many of their people are controlled by drugs, desperation, and poverty?
David's attempt to create a community failed. He found little support from other parts of the Native community for his initiative; in some cases, his efforts were undermined by other Native Americans who refused to help unless they could be in control of the project. Everyone expressed interest, but few provided aid. In the end, David was unable to make the lease payments on the ranch. A dozen men, women, and children were once again homeless. And my friend turned to alcohol and cocaine in assuaging his massive disappointment; I've now lost track of him.
The residents of Indian Park have no hope, no future, and no reason to climb out of their alcoholic hazes. "Where are all the Indian leaders?" an Indian friend recently asked me. I didn't have an answer.
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