American Indian Artists in Recovery: The Socioeconomic and Religious Issues Surrounding Art and Addiction

IARC Seminar

January 29–February 1, 2007

For many Native American artists struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, recovery is complicated by a long-standing constellation of social, political, religious, and economic problems that have challenged indigenous communities for generations. Any one of these issues—multicultural conflict, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, and a history of oppression, to name just a few—would place a person at risk for substance abuse. At this groundbreaking seminar, developed by Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) director Kathy Whitaker, 10 Native artists came together to explore the journey from substance abuse to recovery from addiction and its relationship to both creative processes and broader indigenous issues.

Co-chairs Michael Kabotie (Hopi) and Sam English (Anishinaabe) identified several themes for the seminar discussions, including creativity, spirituality, fears, self-destructive behaviors, and, particularly, the way substance abusers, both individually and collectively, formulate positive responses to the problems of addictive behaviors. Against the broad social, economic, and political forces involved in substance abuse, these themes served as conceptual guideposts as the participants enriched their spirited dialogue with sketching, painting, and the sharing of personal experiences. “For this seminar, it was important that all participants be not only sober but in recovery,” said English. “It was important to have Indian artists carry a message of sobriety to the American Indian community.”

The group tackled many complex questions over the course of the week. What forces in one’s life experiences foster acquiescence—or resistance—to addiction? What is important in the act of creating, and why does such expression instill self-confidence, self-determination, and a desire to overcome social ills? Can art become free expression and resolution for the artist’s anger, guilt, shame, and other emotional releases, responses, and actions? Does creative action risk becoming part of the addictive behavior? Is a creative life a sacred life? If it is, then what happens when an artist becomes addicted? Do artists incorporate the sacred into their work when they are sober and the profane when they are not? These questions clearly involve multicultural issues that affect the substance abuser and his or her family, the tribal community, friends, and associates.

“These discussions and their results can only serve to enhance our lives today, our careers, our personalities, our families, and our communities. It has long been my vision that a center for healing through the performing arts be established for the several generations of Indian people who are going through the healing process that our medicine, spiritual, and elder people speak of,” said English. “This seminar is a first step for artists.”

Sam English, Facilitator Anishanabe
Michael Kabotie, Facilitator Hopi
Paul K. Conner
Dennis Esquivel Odawa
Cliff Fragua Jemez Pueblo
Laura Gachupin Jemez Pueblo
Yolanda Hart Stevens Maricopa
Lorenzo Hogue Navajo
Steve LaBoueff Blackfeet
Kevin Pourier Lakota
Nelda Schrupp Lakota

Sponsored by The Annenberg Foundation

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