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SPOTLIGHT
on
Drug Awareness and Community Healing

Seattle Times Story by Lynda Mapes / Photos by Mark Harrison
First Published in the Seattle Times December 2, 2005

Posted Here with Permission.

Jewell Praying Wolf James, a former member of the Lummi tribal council and tribal spiritual leader, speaks to the crowd as the house goes up in flames. The fire, he said, is to remind us to be together in the sacred circle of life. Show up when your people need you the most.
[Jewell Praying Wolf James, a former member of the Lummi tribal council
and tribal spiritual leader, speaks to the crowd as the house goes up in flames.
The fire, he said, "is to remind us to be together in the sacred circle of life.
Show up when your people need you the most."]

Lummis enlist fire, an old ally, as they battle scourge of drugs
By Lynda Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter

LUMMI NATION, Whatcom County It began quietly with the beat of a single elk-skin drum. Then came the songs and prayers, as powerful as the fire set to this house to burn it to the ground.

Painted with red ochre for spiritual protection, Dorothy Charles, a spiritual leader of the Nooksack tribe, led family members in setting the house ablaze and, with it, trying to destroy the scourge of drug abuse killing some Lummi people.

Boarded up, abandoned and condemned, the house destroyed in a burning ceremony on the Lummi reservation Thursday was last lived in by a renter who used it, without the knowledge of its owners, to deal drugs.

The dealer is now in jail. The family that owns the home agreed to the burning to cleanse the ground, and through the fire, bring a fresh start not only to the family but to the tribe.

Of 170 babies born on the reservation in 2003, 28 are believed to have been affected by alcohol or drugs.

An 18-month-old picked an Oxycontin pill off the floor in her home and was killed by an overdose of the prescription painkiller, known here as Hillbilly Heroin.

A 2-month-old was found dead in a baby swing surrounded by drug abusers. And on and on and on.

The Lummi have responded, beginning in 2002 with a communitywide, anti-drug program that has thrown everything at the drug problem, from detectives and prosecuting attorneys to drug testing, surveillance cameras and even banishment of dealers from the reservation.

Since January 2004, 21 alleged dealers have been charged, and 15 convicted, with trials pending for six people. A youth treatment facility has been opened, as well as a house for kids with no safe place to call home.

And still it is not enough. To begin the healing, the tribe has returned to the teachings of its ancestors.

Fire has helped this tribe in times of great hurt before. Many tribal members here believe it will help again.

Tribal members at the Lummi reservation watch the destruction of a house Thursday that had been used in drug dealing. This is only the beginning of the trying to destroy what is wrecking our families, said Dorothy Charles, a spiritual leader.
[Tribal members at the Lummi reservation watch the destruction of a house Thursday December 1, 2005 that had been used in drug dealing. "This is only the beginning of the trying to destroy what is wrecking our families,"
said Dorothy Charles, a spiritual leader.]

Historical parallels

For Tribal Council Chairman Darrell Hillaire and many other people here, fire is a family relation.

When his people were forced from their homes by white settlement, many tribal members burned them down rather than give them up.

"I visualize our great-grandparents had to burn their homes down and lose everything and paddle across Bellingham Bay, across to here on the reservation," Hillaire said.

"I visualize that plume on that side of the bay, and moving [paddling] away to here. There is a great deal of sadness attached to that."

That was after the diseases, brought by white settlers and traders, had already scythed the populations of the coastal peoples of the Northwest.

Smallpox, tuberculosis and measles to which the native people had no resistance swept through the reservation in wave after wave.

To protect themselves, tribal members would leave the bodies of their loved ones and all their possessions in their homes and set the homes ablaze.

"If you can imagine that," Hillaire said. "Moving away from a home completely engulfed in flame, containing your loved ones, everything you ever owned, and having to leave that behind you."

And now the tribe faces a new epidemic in the prescription painkillers, heroin, marijuana and alcohol that have claimed too many lives.

In burning this house ceremonially, in a spirit of healing and not anger, the tribe was using fire once again, this time to send a message, Hillaire said:

"Enough is enough."

"We need lots of fire"

It was a stubborn fire. It didn't want to burn. It burned sullenly, just like the drug problem in this community.

Charles, the spiritual leader, would have none of it.

"We need paper. We need kindling," she said, marching toward onlookers gathered to witness the burning. "What we are doing is serious. All this should have been ready. Whatever you have, get this started, we need lots of fire."

And so they ran to their cars and grabbed newspapers, cardboard, grocery bags, junk mail anything that would burn.

They hurried it to the spiritual workers, who stoked the fire. And with the community's work, the flames started to climb.

"It is not your fault," Charles assured the family that owned this house, some of them sobbing as the walls began to cave.

"This family here is standing up, it is making a sacrifice for all those children that are coming" in future generations, Charles shouted.

"This is only the beginning of the trying to destroy what is wrecking our families. We believe in what we are doing. We are not here to make a show. I am sorry for hollering. But I am trying to save my grandchildren."

As powerful as this blaze is, just as important are the fires of compassion this tribe must carry in its heart, said Jewell Praying Wolf James, a former member of the Lummi tribal council and tribal spiritual leader.

"Ask yourself, what does the fire mean? It is to remind us to be together in the sacred circle of life. Show up when your people need you the most.

"Any time a young person dies because of drugs or alcohol, where were we? When all around us the kids are crying and suffering, what does that tell you about ourselves?"

He remembered his nephew, dead from an overdose in a car parked in front of this very house.

"Go find out how you can help one person, one more time," James said, standing before the roaring blaze.

Glass exploded. The roof fell in.

"There it goes," Charles said, watching the smoke rise to the sky, and with it, the pain in this house.

"There it all goes."

Lynda Mapes
lmapes@seattletimes.com
206-464-2736
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