Indian Traditions Help 'Drunk Town' Shed Its Image

A detox center and a host of community efforts have turned Gallup, N.M., into a showcase of promising alcohol-prevention efforts

Unlike others who stagger through the door, Carl is younger, clear eyed, and sober tonight. "I hitchhiked here," he says softly, placing a small duffel bag on the counter and looking around. "My probation officer sent me."

It's 9:30 on a warm evening at the intake area of the Na'nizhoozhi Center Inc. (NCI), a few miles east of the Gallup, N.M., downtown area. Na'nizhoozhi (pronounced "NOT nejozgee") means "bridge" in Navajo.

All day, and into the night, a police van brings mostly drunken native Americans to NCI, the heart of Gallup's remarkable effort to change a severe community alcohol-abuse problem that is well over a century old.

By midnight some 23 men, picked up on the streets, are lying asleep on mats in a huge, clean, secure room. A handful of women are in another area. On some weekends, more than 100 disheveled, bleary-eyed people can be brought to NCI for protective custody. Or some arrive sober, like Carl, ready to try to stop drinking.

The NCI programs that await Carl and others in the morning - combined with a host of community and tribal efforts - have changed Gallup from being labeled "Drunk Town, USA," into a national showcase of promising alcohol-prevention efforts.

The tribes here in the Four Corners area of the Southwest form the largest concentration of American Indians in the US, some 200,000 stretched over 15,144 square miles. It is a place where the presence of the hopeless, drunken Indian was once accepted. But now, although alcoholism continues to be a problem, the alcoholic way of life is slowly becoming less tolerated among the four Indian tribes - Navajo Nation, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna Pueblos. And treatment facilities and counseling efforts in three counties, and Indian communities, are slowly increasing.

Studies indicate that some American Indian communities have reduced alcoholism significantly. Here in the Navajo Nation, according to a 1996 NCI report, the majority of "meetings, ceremonies, dances, rodeos and public events are now alcohol free."

The 'drunk tank'

Ten years ago, Gallup's reputation was so notorious that ABC's "20/20" television program called it, "Drunk Town, USA." An infamous photo of sleeping bodies piled in a crowded Gallup police drunk tank was widely circulated in the press. And India's Mother Theresa, recognizing the severity of the problem in this town of 22,000, opened a soup kitchen here in the late 1980s.

In the mid-1970s, Gallup's McKinley County was the worst county in the United States for alcohol-related mortality. Residents here were 225 percent more likely to die from substance-abuse-related causes than were all New Mexico residents.

But beginning in the early '80s, and accelerating in the last seven years, Gallup began a counterattack:

* Nearly a half-dozen Gallup bars have been closed by the district attorney as nuisances.

* Sunday selling of liquor has been banned, and walk-up windows for buying liquor have been closed.

* McKinley County became the first county in the state to approve a liquor excise tax providing nearly $600,000 annually for abuse prevention and education.

* With cooperation from local liquor retailers, clerks get specific training in responsible liquor sales.

* Gallup's Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) ordinance (0.08 blood alcohol level and 72 hours mandatory jail for first offenders) is the strictest in the state.

"What has happened is that the community has systematically shifted in understanding of how we deal with people who are drunk," says Eric Meyner, a prevention specialist at Northwest New Mexico Fighting Back, an organization funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that is instrumental in Gallup's change.

"With the opening of NCI, we put them in a place that is safe, where they get food and can be dried out," he says. "And each one is treated humanely no matter how chronic their problem."

Early criticism that NCI was a "hotel for drunks" has quickly faded.

In fact, the native American staff at NCI, from clerks to administrators, regards the troubled people who stagger through the intake doors as "relatives," a concept with deep roots in Indian culture. This is a key element in the philosophic approach of the center, and a 180 degree turn from the community attitude in the past.

"We consider them as family," says Mirriam Abeyrta, nursing director at NCI, "and many don't have family support, so they turn to us. Though they fall off the wagon now and then, we accept them for who they are. We may not stop them from drinking totally, but they modify, and we learn from them."

Several drunk-driving incidents, including the loss of an entire family, occurred in the late 1980s near Gallup, whose status as the main shopping and silver-jewelry center for native Americans can swell the population to 60,000 on weekends. Public concern grew, including a march on the state legislature in Santa Fe. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R) arranged for the federal government, through the Indian Health Service, to provide $900,000 to operate a new protective custody center, which became NCI.

Then in 1990, the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments was given a $250,000 planning grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, followed two years later by an implementation grant of $3 million. The objective was to organize a community mobilization strategy against alcohol abuse that would strengthen existing organizations, create coalitions across three counties, and draw more citizens into alcohol-abuse prevention efforts.

Today, coordinators for Fighting Back are active in Gallup and 10 communities. "We are not interested in fame," says Raymond Daw, executive director of Fighting Back and of NCI, "but in quietly shepherding community groups to address the problems. Twenty years ago it would have been unheard of for the non-native American population to say, 'Let's create a detox center for native American drunks.' "

Traditional methods

Built with city and federal funds, NCI opened in l992, effectively closing the doors of the notorious city drunk tank. NCI now serves as a detox center, a short-term shelter, a provider of treatment for DWI offenders, and a counseling unit. The staff also makes referrals for long-term treatment.

Recently NCI began an intensive, 14-day program, the Eagle Plume Society, which uses traditional Indian healing methods to help chronic alcoholics. "Many people here can't relate to Western methods," says Harrison Jim, a counselor at NCI, "so we use the sweat lodge, drumming, talking circles, and other methods to help them connect with the strength of their Indian heritage."

NCI's overall success is measurable. In the 1980s, Gallup averaged a little more than 34,000 protective-custody admissions to the drunk tank each year. In 1996, admissions to NCI had dropped to 17,723. Some see a future in which a number of mini-NCI's will be built in surrounding communities and other states.

NCI gets many repeaters, some as many as 700 times. "This person has adapted to the street as a mode of survival," says Matthew Kelley, clinical director of NCI. "It's a way to socialize without killing yourself."

Alcoholism has persisted among Indians here for complex historical and social reasons. Timothy Yazzie, standing in the holding area of NCI, says he started drinking when he was 11 or 12, and has been in and out of the center. "It's hard to find a steady job around here," he says. "I'm in this cycle at the center of going in and coming out."

Gallup's struggle with alcohol began with its role as a mining and railroad town in the 1870s. At one point, 23 saloons dotted the main street facing the railroad tracks.

As Indian ways were deposed by US government policies - as well as missionaries - over the last two centuries, Indian self-determination vanished, poverty became widespread, poor nutrition increased, and alcoholic binge drinking evolved as the norm among native American alcohol abusers here.

Today, limited economic opportunities, family breakdown, and hopelessness in a harsh environment are the condition of many native Americans here. Unemployment on the Navajo reservation fluctuates between 36 percent and 50 percent.

Such conditions play a large role in alcoholism, say experts. While some have suggested that many native Americans have a genetic predisposition or biological deficit that dooms them to alcoholism, that notion has been repeatedly challenged. Philip May, director of the Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addiction at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, stated in a 1994 report that "the [biological assertion] has no basis in fact."

"We could lick the alcohol problem, and a whole lot of other problems would be there," says Bob Kuipers, a Fighting Back coordinator. "Until Navajos can grow up in good and safe communities, and have a strong economic base on the reservation, we'll have all these problems."

Demographics in the Navajo Nation are changing swiftly, bringing new challenges.

"Currently, 50 percent of the Navajo population is under 20," says Emerson Toledo, director of House of Hope, an alcoholic teen resident program at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital in Gallup. "Alcohol abuse is a family problem, " he says. "Of the 289 families we have worked with, only one family had the natural mother and father at home."

Few Indian families have escaped alcoholism's influence. "I've seen a lot of my relatives die," says Roger Daw, shift supervisor at NCI, as he watched six drunken men arrive at the center in a police van. "It's part of the trauma we carry inside. Some of us turn it into something positive."

Despite the magnitude of social and economic problems on and off the reservation, many Indian leaders say NCI's impact, and the corresponding community effort, are keyed by the right impulse.

"It's not doing any good anymore to blame the non-Indian race for this," says Dan Freeman, a Navajo medicine man and a Fighting Back coordinator. "What we should be is what matters," he says. "We have to recognize and take ownership of this, and grow and learn, and take responsibility in our own homes as mothers and fathers."

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