Walking Two Roads
"Ndaw aptozhi, is often how I describe myself to others from my tribe.
Those words are often translated in a negative sense as" half-breed,"
to designate someone who has one Indian parent and one non-Indian
parent. But it really means "I walk two paths," one white and one
It also means that I never live fully in one world or the other, and
for a long time I used it as an excuse to drink. Around me most of my
Indian and white relatives drank, and I don't remember much time
passing without a funeral of someone who "drank themselves to death."
It wasn't until I got into AA that I thought about those words too
often whispered at Indian funerals, "he or she drank themselves to
I was four years old and we went to Oklahoma to the funeral of my
uncle, dead at 36 with seven kids left at home. My dad had to help dig
the grave on a cold and rainy spring morning. I knew about blood since
I had cut myself on a coffee can lid not long before my uncle died, and
I somehow connected that event with my uncle's death, although the
finality of death was beyond my young mind.
When my dad came through the door of my grandma's house after digging
the grave it seemed like he was covered in blood. My mom told me later
that I started screaming because I thought my dad would die as well.
But it was just my dad covered in dark red mud from the grave-digging
Drinking and the death of loved ones were imprinted early on in my mind
but it still did not stop me from following the drinking road. It did
not matter that by the time I was eighteen we had buried two uncles,
several cousins and an uncounted number of friends.
'Drank themselves to death' are words that lurk behind suicide, car
accidents, increased diabetes and heart attacks. But somehow along the
road I managed to be the first one in my family to finish high school
and go on to college.
Years went by where I did not drink at all and there was hope I would
escape the fate of so many friends and relatives in Indian Country. By
the time I started graduate school with a dream of teaching, I was on a
detour from the spiritual path and I lost my way.
I knew it was wrong to drink, but after nearly eight years of sobriety
I stopped on the way home to an empty house and bought a bottle.
Sitting in the dark, drinking, I felt as though someone was watching me
and when I turned on the light, there he was, a white rat.
My neighbor in the apartment next door kept a rat as a pet and he
somehow got loose and found his way through the wall heater and into
the apartment. I knew it was a sign of alcoholism to drink alone so,
the white rat and I got drunk. At least I was not drinking alone and
such is the insanity of an alcoholic.
Over the next eighteen years I went through three marriages, checked
into rehab twice, had drunk driving charges, and in and out of AA
without making a commitment to follow the 12 steps.
I must have quit drinking "for the rest of my life" a dozen times, and
not once did it work for me. Along the way I had many experiences but
was in no condition to see those events for what they were, signs
telling me that the Indian road does not include alcohol.
Finally, I was alone one day in an apartment in the city, estranged
from my third wife, when I went out barefoot and staggering around the
parking lot. All I recall of that last arrest is the cop asking me,
"Do you speak English?" For someone with brown skin those words also
mean, "Put your hands behind your back you are going to jail."
When I got out the next day from a public intoxication charge, my wife
checked me into a halfway house and within a few weeks I made a
commitment to stay sober one day at a time. Not for the rest of my
life, but simply one day at a time.
I was lucky enough to find a fellow Indian with many years sobriety to
act as my AA sponsor and to act, in an Indian way, as the uncle I lost
to alcoholism so many years ago. For Indians I think, sober relatives
are the key to getting and staying sober.
Those Indian communities standing up to alcoholism and pledging dry
reservations and dry communities, are having the most success with
long-term sobriety. For me, I want to leave a legacy of sobriety and
not have my family whispering those awful words that I heard too many
times when I was a child.
I still walk two roads, but the Indian road is marked by 12 steps to a
spiritual life through the community of Alcoholics Anonymous.