JOSEPH L. Garcia says he finally ``found myself'' while at an Indian powwow. Bored and ``unhappy with his environment,'' he had quit his job and traveled to Salt Lake City to go back to school. It was there that Mr. Garcia attended the powwow.
At first he stayed, impartial, on the sidelines, watching others dance the steps that generations of native Americans had danced before them. Here was a man who for years had tried ``to pass for Italian or Chicano or whatever'' -- and flinched whenever someone identified him as an Indian.
``But finally,'' he remembers, ``my foot started tapping, and I took the hand of the lady next to me and said, `Come on. Let's go dance.' '' Celebration of life
He danced for hours, in celebration of all living things, in celebration of the fact that for the first time he had publicly affirmed that he belonged to the Indian community. It was also an important step in overcoming his dependence on alcohol. Becoming involved
``Ever since then I became very involved in Indian groups, Indian issues, Indian affairs -- Indian everything,'' says Garcia, who now serves as executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council here in New Mexico.
Garcia's experience dramatizes a cultural reawakening that is evident in much of Indian country. His lesson -- that the white man's way is not necessarily the Indian's way -- is being implemented as Indians strive to regain their independence from the federal government.
Some tribes are now insisting that schoolchildren be taught their native language as well as English. Elders' councils -- which largely disappeared after the introduction of conventional American democratic procedures -- have regrouped in the Inupiaq villages of northwest Alaska.
The Tulalip tribes just north of Seattle have reinstated the ancient salmon ceremony, an observance the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs once forced them to discontinue. Pull of the old ways
``I don't know the old life style, but I can feel its pull,'' says Wayne W. Williams, whose job as manager of Tulalip Bingo requires him to wear the suit and tie of the business world. ``I can feel and hear the drumbeats and the pulse of our past. There is a part of me that always will resist complete surrender to the pull of the rest of society.''
The stubborn refusal of the first Americans to assimilate is the only reason native culture exists at all today, anthropologists say. But the ``pull'' of white society could not help but rip the fabric of Indian life, they add. Mr. Williams says his mother, now 82, still tells stories of being sent away from her family to boarding school, where she was whipped for speaking her native tongue.
``Before Europeans came [to settle America], Indians lived a very rich life by primitive standards,'' Williams says. ``We have substituted for that life one where we are objects of pity or scorn, and it takes its toll.''
Indian tribes have paid the price with extraordinarily high rates of alcoholism and suicide.
Alfonso Ortiz, a professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, suggests that when a society loses control of its own affairs, its members -- packed onto reservations and made wards of the federal government -- lose their sense of self-control.
For Garcia, the reconciliation with his heritage helped release him from ``the throes of alcoholism.'' That experience with alcohol abuse, he says, has heightened his concern for citizens of the eight northern Pueblo tribes.
``We have a good labor force here, but we don't have too much for them to do,'' Garcia explains. Convinced that idleness and boredom contribute to the problem, he says he is working to attract businesses and jobs to the area.
``It's just difficult for us to get our foot in the door,'' he adds, noting that most companies won't locate their facilities two hours from the nearest airport and an hour from the nearest Interstate highway.
Up a dusty road and around the bend from Garcia's office, the New Moon Lodge Halfway House ministers to the immediate needs of alcoholics who are trying to make a fresh start.
The program offers the usual array of services: counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, educational opportunities, and job training. It also emphasizes traditional Indian values such as sharing with others and respecting the land. Getting back to nature
``It's part of the therapy to get back to nature and get back to the cultural heritage,'' says Lori Cruze, director of New Moon Lodge.
Alcohol-recovery professionals cite various reasons for the problem among native Americans: financial woes, erosion of the extended family, joblessness, low self-esteem, an inability to adapt to the pace of the working world off the reservation.
``I've thought about it for a long time, and the reason I come up with is an overriding feeling of defeat,'' says Ronald M. Rowell, president of the board of the Indian Alcoholism Program of San Francisco. ``Indian people are in their home of 30,000 years and are constantly reminded that they don't belong here. That sense of being a permanent outcast is a major part of the problem.''
The rate of alcohol-related deaths among Indians is 4.7 times that of the general population, according to Indian Health Services (IHS), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The figure is probably even higher because other leading causes of death among Indians -- auto accidents, suicide, and homocide -- are also often alcohol-related.
``If we don't deal with this problem now, you can throw everything else out the window,'' says Mr. Rowell, a Choctaw originally from Oklahoma. ``It's more important, even, than economic development.'' Combating alcoholism
In recent years every major Indian organization in the country has identified alcoholism as a top priority, and they have lobbied Congress to preserve funding for treatment programs.
There appears to be some progress. The rate of Indian deaths attributable directly to alcohol has declined steadily since 1973, when it was 6.1 times the rate for the general population. This year, the IHS will spend more than $24 million on alcohol-related programs, including money for more than 200 alcoholism programs in 34 states.
Increasingly, these programs are being run by Indians themselves and adapted to Indian needs. Alfredo Rivas, director of Friendship House Association of American Indians Inc. in San Francisco, says flatly that Indian people go to programs run by Indian people. Many are skeptical, he says, of what they perceive to be ``the Anglocized approach to recovery.''
Friendship House strives to approach the individual as ``a complete entity'' -- the intellectual, the emotional, the physical, the cultural, and the spiritual, Dr. Rivas says. On this day, Friendship House residents are merry, joking among themselves and eating cake and ice cream. They're celebrating a year's sobriety by three program graduates.
But Rivas also remembers that he attended seven funerals last year and 10 funerals in 1984 -- all for former clients who left the program.
``Most Indians have some sort of notion of God -- a higher power, the creator, the Great Spirit. But alcoholics lose it. It gets lost in the shuffle, for Indians and non-Indians,'' Rivas says. ``These people have had experiences in their lives that have caused them to lose that idea, but they can still find it.''
The new search for old values has also redoubled, on a much larger scale, among Alaska's Inupiaq natives.
``We're not just targeting a sick person. We're targeting a sick community,'' says John Schaeffer, one of the driving forces behind a cultural renaissance that has come to be called ``the spirit movement.'' Beginning of new movement
The movement was born about five years ago and sprang from the concern of top officials at the Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA), one of the native corporations formed by Congress to hold assets that Alaska natives won in a comprehensive land-claims settlement in 1971. In its 10 years, NANA had brought a number of benefits to its native shareholders -- more jobs, better educational opportunities, and dividends from profits -- recalls Mr. Schaeffer, who was then NANA president.
``But in looking at the overall tribal responsibility, not just the corporate responsibility, we saw that we weren't doing so well,'' he adds. There were high rates of alcoholism and suicide, and a plethora of family problems -- ``all the signs of a society that was not well.''
Not knowing where to turn, and convinced that more ``programs'' were not the answer, NANA finally called a conference of village elders. The elders, Schaeffer said, determined that the problems ``were created by a lack of value training in living.'' They went on to identify specific native values that needed to be taught to younger generations -- values that had been eroding under the pressure of modernization.
Today, white-and-navy posters that enumerate the native values are plastered all over schools, public buildings, and homes in the 11 villages. They tell residents that the communal must prevail over the individual, that sharing with others is more important than accumulating wealth, and that hard work, not dependence on a government handout, is the Inupiaq way.
The spirit movement has taken hold at a particularly crucial time in the history of Alaska natives, who live, not on reservations, but on land held for them by the native corporations. Five years from now, Alaska natives will be allowed for the first time to sell their corporation stock.
Native leaders are concerned that, if enough shareholders sell out, the people will lose control of their corporations and, worse, their land. The potential exists for Indian people to become paupers on someone else's property, refused the subsistence rights of hunting and fishing that form the backbone of their culture, they say. The greatest tragedy would be if natives ``sell their children's heritage'' so they can pay the electric bill or buy alcohol, Schaeffer adds.
Even if native groups can persuade Congress to abolish or amend the 1971 settlement act to ensure that native land doesn't pass out of native hands, the social upheaval will be difficult to overcome.
``There are a lot of reasons for people to get depressed,'' says Reggie Joule, regional youth director in the NANA Museum program. But Mr. Joule, a former athlete who gained nationwide recognition for his excellence in Alaska native games like the blanket toss, knows from experience that the spirit movement confronts these reasons head on. Until he started working with the movement, he had been a heavy drinker and a user of other drugs.
``The only thing that pulled me out of it was that I could do something that connected me to my heritage,'' he says of his athletic feats. ``I found a niche that made me native, aside from the color of my skin. I latched onto it and never let go.''