One-thousand and three days.
That’s how long Angel Teton has been sober.
“I was always so scared because I knew you could overdose,” Teton said. “ … But that didn’t stop me from doing it.”
Teton, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, grew up in the culture of her ancestors on the Fort Hall Reservation. Unfortunately, something else crept into the culture that surrounded her: drug and alcohol abuse.
One in five Native American young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 abuse illicit drugs and alcohol, the highest of any ethnicity in the United States, according to a 2018 study by American Addiction Centers. Of the overall Native American population, 10 percent have a substance use disorder.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes government prohibits the sale and consumption of all drugs and alcohol on the Fort Hall Reservation, with the exception of some alcoholic beverages served at their tribe-owned hotel casino.
Despite laws prohibiting alcohol on the reservation, Teton grew up seeing the adults and teens around her drink and use drugs, especially marijuana.
“It was normal to me; I thought it was just something we do,” Teton said.
Lack of economic opportunity and high unemployment rates, high levels of mental illness and generational trauma are but a few of the possible contributing factors researchers continue to study.
Whatever the reasons for substance abuse struggles, the Shoshone-Bannock are fighting to help those struggling in their community.
“We are fighting back against (drugs and alcohol),” said Jason Butler, the director of the tribe-operated Waapi Kani Mental Wellness & Recovery Services.
Tribal members and others from the community gathered Thursday, Sep. 14 to celebrate recoveries from substance abuse addictions and a new partnership between the tribe’s Waapi Kani Mental Wellness & Recovery Services and Idaho Falls-based Center for Hope Peer Recovery Center.
Many recovered tribal members shared stories and words of encouragement for anyone battling a drug or alcohol addiction.
“A lot of us have been through (addiction recovery), and I’m glad you shared your stories today because it raises awareness in the community,” Butler said. “Drugs and alcohol are not our culture.”
Shoshone-Bannock culture centers on deep, spiritual connections with self, ancestors and the land. Respect for the land and their ancestors grounds them in their own sense of self.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes host an annual celebration of their culture every August.
“During the festival, I thought what we do is just party; we drink, we go smoke, we just have a good time,” Teton said. “That’s what I thought it was about.”
That first time Teton got high off marijuana was during the annual festival. She started “blanking out” and briefly lost consciousness multiple times. Alarmed, she told her older brother, but he brushed her off.
Nearly 10 years later, Teton’s dug addiction ruled her life. This same older brother asked Teton to go for a ride in his car.
Her brother silently drove them several streets and around a corner to a parked ambulance. Its back doors were already open, as though waiting for someone.
Her brother parked the car and told Teton to get out. She didn’t completely understand what was happening until the EMTs started strapping her onto the stretcher.
She broke away, but the EMTs forced her back onto the stretcher and into the ambulance.
“I just remember my brother looked at me.,” Teton said. “He looked at me in tears and he said, ‘Angel, I don’t want you to ruin your life. Please, will you just sober up? We can’t let you do this to yourself anymore.'”
Teton wiped away tears of her own as she recounted her brother’s words.
As the ambulance doors swung shut, the memory of her brother’s face and words burned into her mind. Teton knew she would never do drugs again.
Teton endured body-racking withdrawals in the Bannock County Detention Center in Pocatello. One day, as she lay on her cell floor too exhausted to get up, Teton had a dream. She said her ancestors came and spoke with her in the native Shoshone language.
“Me, here, today — I don’t speak Shoshone,” Teton said.
Her grandmother appeared in the dream as a voice in the air, and her grandfather was the sun, a bright light in the sky.
“They told me I’d make it through, that I had strong blood,” Teton said. Just recalling the experience her chin lifted, her shoulders squared and her eyes sparked resolutely.
That experience grounded and strengthened Teton as she fought to regain herself and her life.
Now, nearly three years later and clean from drugs and alcohol, Teton can be a mom again to her only son, Kurtis. He is 10 and already taller than her.
Teton works with the Waapi Kani tribal recovery center and helps others struggling with substance abuse and mental health challenges.
Although she regained much of her life that drug addiction stole, she said she “will never be the same” because of ongoing, drug-induced mental and physical health problems. Teton continues to fight every day.
Many members of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes still battle as Teton did to overcome addictions that steal their lives. The Waapi Kani tribal recovery center refers to them as “Recovery Warriors.” They carry on the warrior tradition of their ancestors, but against the foe of drug and alcohol addiction.
“In many of the recovery stories, spiritual awakenings were mentioned a few times, but I don’t really think we spent quite enough time really talking about how impactful our culture is on recovery,” Butler said from the podium as he concluded the Tribal Recovery Fest.
Butler said that helping people heal from addictions by focusing on their culture is part of what they do at Waapi Kani.
“I didn’t plan on doing this when we started,” Butler said. “But I want to finish by singing a song in honor of all the people who shared their stories.”