A Sacred Fire

Kenneth Morsette of Sisseton adjusts ventilation on the tipi used to host the sacred fire. • Matthew Townsend

Postcard from South Dakota

By Matthew Townsend

The Christmas season can be a hard time for addicts and their families. Seasonal stresses, often compounded by the ghosts of traumatic holidays past, can raise tensions even for those with years of sobriety. And those still struggling with alcohol, drugs, or gambling may run deeper into addiction as a means of escape.

Nowhere is this pain more poignant than in places like the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota. In many ways, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (formerly Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe) struggle with American problems that are not at all uncommon: alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, broken families — but the stakes are raised by a distressing suicide rate, high unemployment, and a struggle for identity that only indigenous peoples can likely appreciate.

Jamie German, communications coordinator for the Episcopal Sisseton Mission and a member of the tribe, told TLC that everyone on the reservation has battled to hold on to a loved one in the throes of addiction, and that everyone she knew had lost a loved one, usually overcome by depression and substance abuse, to suicide.

A nephew of German’s recently committed suicide, and she has relatives struggling with addiction. This is part of why she and other Episcopalians among the tribe have been supporting a new initiative by Brandi DeCoteau, also a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. DeCoteau, a recovering methamphetamine addict and mother of six, is spending the month of December in a robust tipi in the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Community Memorial Park.

There, she and husband, Tom DeCoteau Jr., are keeping the flame of a Sacred Fire lit for 30 days. The fire, part of a nationwide movement on reservations to raise prayers and awareness about addiction through these month-long events, warms the tipi, but it does much more. People of all walks of life — Native Americans, whites, Christians, observers of the traditional religion, addicts, and relatives of addicts — come to sprinkle tobacco on the fire and offer a prayer.

“The fire will be lit to promote healing, awareness, and unity amongst our people. With this Sacred Fire we will protect our people, women, children, and those in need with our cultures and traditions,” the mission statement says.

“But with this fire we are also praying that it leads people to God — whether it’s through church or through our traditional ways,” Brandi told TLC inside of the tipi on Dec. 4, as she and Tom prepared for the first blizzard of the year.

“I believe that addiction is a spiritual sickness, and that a lot of the people live in spiritual poverty, not having that connection with the Creator. And I know for me, I learned that having God in my life wasn’t good enough. I had to have him in my heart,” she said.

Brandi said God used the Bible and the traditional religion of the Dakota to save her. She cited Mark 5:1-16, Jesus’ restoration of the possessed man. “That was me,” the young woman said. “I was on meth for two years, but I used marijuana and I drank since I was 11. I tried other drugs on and off. But I never had anything take over me the way meth did. It was like I was possessed.

“And when I didn’t feel possessed, I felt like an empty shell. I was just breathing. I didn’t think I was ever coming out of it. I didn’t think I was ever going to get saved. And I thought my only way out was death, so I was suicidal.”

Brandi said the grace of God — and the work of 12-step recovery — helped save her.

“We pray that this fire will lead people to God and help people heal, so that we don’t need drugs and alcohol. There’s a lot of people hurting; not just here, but everywhere. It’s not just the natives, but a lot of the white people, too.”

“Around here, there’s so much hurt we go through our whole lives, passed down through generations,” Tom told TLC. “We’re ashamed of who we are and what happened to us. So, it’s really easy for us Dakota people on the reservation to get ashamed and not feel like we’re worth anything. So, when we use, we feel something.

“Just come, say a prayer, and start on your journey,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of people come through and go to treatment. It’s just getting our pride back — and our strength back as a people — that’s going to help us.”

Brandi said the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection, especially to others and to God. She added that connection has been impeded by the trauma inflicted on native peoples throughout history, including by Christians.

“All these people who claimed to be of God came, put us in boarding schools, and took away our connection — took away our spirituality, took away everything. So, all that is passed down from generation to generation. They almost took away our language. Another big part of healing is our identity.”

Brandi said that Christians wanting to help should avoid bringing dogmatic views to the reservation, a complex environment in which religions and denominations can sometimes work at cross purposes. “I love the Bible and I love Jesus, and I also love my Chanunpa [a sacred pipe]. I believe there is one God, but I think it’s harmful when the pastors come and say, ‘Jesus is the only way.’ They say that our ways are wrong. That close-mindedness hurts.”

The Rev. Charles Chan, priest with the Sisseton Mission, said that approach to evangelism, which can be seen on the reservation, is often a reflection of the prosperity gospel and other televangelist-inspired faith movements. He cited the official position of the Episcopal Church as an asset.

“We can claim salvation inside the church. We cannot say there is no salvation outside the church. So, I always try to focus on what we have.”

Chan told TLC that he has been visiting Dakotah Pride Treatment Center, which provides rehabilitation services in Sisseton, as a form of outreach. There, Chan helps those struggling with addiction by listening to the moral inventories they create during fourth-step work.

Recently, the center has leaned toward traditional Dakota spirituality, meaning Chan’s visits have shifted from weekly to as-needed. He said that does not bother him, though.

“The truth is, with that kind of situation, the first thing to go is spirituality. And it’s the last thing to come back. So whatever spirituality they can regain, that will help them. So, it’s fine with me.”

The Episcopal churches have also considered hosting a new Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he said, but they are careful not to compete with existing opportunities. The priest has also worked on adapting 12-step recovery within a Christian context, offering that to parishioners who are interested.

German, who grew up Episcopal, said she wanted to see more connection as well with other Episcopalians. “I wish more people would come from the outside, more Episcopalians, and have a workshop or gathering, so they could help spread the word that there’s a crisis.

“It’s real. It’s tearing a lot of families apart,” she said. “A lot of little kids have to deal with it too. The whole family has to deal with the addicts, and they don’t know how to get out of it.”

She invited Episcopalians to pray for the DeCoteaus as they maintain their vigil, and for people struggling with addiction. “Pray wherever you’re at, just say a prayer for them. Say a prayer for him. Say a prayer for her.”

Matthew Townsend and his wife, Katy Crane, are spending December with the Sisseton Mission on the Traverse Lake Reservation.


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