It’s good to be here. My name is Apela Colorado; I will open this talk in a traditional Native way with a chant — a prayer. Foster Ampong, a Ka ko’o, or helper, is going to do that for us.
(Hawaiian chant, “E ho ‘i Mai,” a request to enter and to merge with the sacred wisdom.)
Can you feel that good, strong feeling in the room? It seems like Foster’s been doing this all his life, right? In reality, Foster just came back to his culture in January. I’m acknowledging this because the most powerful thing I can share with you is the belief in ourselves as native people and the proof that anything is possible when we’re in our indigenous minds. We can remember our power. We have an hour and a half to spend together and when I’m done with my presentation, I will ask Choctaw Elder, Pokni, Mary Jones, who has worked with me, taught me,and helped me for so many years, to listen, to reflect, and to close off our session prayerfully. We’ll also have a question-and-answer time at the conclusion.
I was excited to hear about Coumba Lamba; in fact, I’ve waited for more than 20 years for this day to happen. In the 1970s, I was doing my doctoral research on native alcoholism. I believed, and was trying to prove, that the answer to healing Native American addiction, which is the leading cause of death, was the return of true culture and spirituality. At the time it was a very radical claim to make. But I faced a difficult personal reality, one that ultimately brought me to this gathering. I wanted to find out why almost everybody in my family that I loved was either actively alcoholic or had died of addiction, and I didn’t want it to happen to me or to my children. So I started researching everything I could get my hands on. I read every study I could find, not easy in the pre-internet age, and besides I was living in a remote Native community without library or bookstore. After reading more than 250 scientific studies of Native alcoholism, I found out there were 247 differing opinions on what caused Native addiction. It seemed more like personal opinions than rigorous research. My sense of this was heightened by the fact that all of the research was conducted by non-Natives. None of the millions of dollars for the studies ever went to Native people, and certainly, none of it went to treatment for our suffering. The context of cultural control and domination evident in the research process drove home the point that addiction among American Indians had to do with being an invaded, oppressed people. Before contact we didn’t have addiction, after contact we did have addiction. Not hard to figure out, but none of the studies addressed it.
When I began my doctoral dissertation research, experts were telling us, “It’s your biology. You
lack the proper genes to metabolize alcohol – you are weaker, that’s why you become addicted.”
The subtext being that drinking alcohol is normal (at the time the Harvard University had
received a multi-million dollar grant, the largest ever to look at the genetic causes of alcoholism.
The donor was Seagram’s whiskey company.) I wanted to find evidence to support the view that
Native addictions resulted from invasion and expropriation – loss of culture, spirituality and life.
I succeeded, but what happened to me in the search, and how it happened, opened up the mystery
of the ”Great Knowledge.”1
REMEMBER, THE PROCESS OF INDIGENOUS SCIENCE BEGINS
I grew up in Wisconsin, and the one cultural person left in my family was my grandfather, who
chose me from his grandchildren and taught me Native values and ways. I wasn’t aware that was
what he was doing. I just knew that I loved him and wanted to be with him. Out of all of his
grandchildren, somehow, I was the only one that was born with a cultural leaning, with that kind
of calling and role in life. He saw it.
My grandfather died when I was just a young teenager, but before he died he relapsed and went
back to drinking. So, I actually lost him much earlier in a terrible way. The one person, in our
huge extended family, I could connect with emotionally was taken from me by alcohol. And then
I was alone. But because of that, I became totally committed to doing something about addiction.
But my grandfather was cultural and knew he should pass on what he knew of the Great
Knowledge. Just before he died, he made my grandma drive him three hours through a
dangerous snowstorm – to come talk with me. I was about twelve years old and really angry with
him for drinking. I did not want to be with him and he knew it. He sat in the easy chair, looked
hard at me (this made me madder) and leaned forward on his cane, and began to speak. What he
said scared the wits out of me. He described my life, naming things he could not possibly know,
and then laid out my future. He wanted my attention and he got it! Then he said, “Remember the
Pipe, Remember the Pipe, Remember the Pipe,” the Pipe being a central way to American Indian
I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I had never seen an Indian pipe in my life. Until
1978, it was illegal in North America for Indians to practice our spiritual ways. It was made
illegal through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Administrative Codes and Practices. You could get
penalized, be imprisoned, or have food rations withheld for practicing indigenous ceremonies.
The ceremonies went underground and missionaries made certain that we grew to fear our own
ways. They justified this to stop the “reckless giving away of things.” A Blackfoot woman once
said, “the worse thing the white man ever did was to kill the buffalo and put us on welfare. They
only give us enough to live and we can’t share with each other.”
As I matured, I felt such loneliness. I kept looking for my reality, for the unconditional love that
underpins Native culture and that I felt with my grandfather. I recalled that he had wanted me to
go to university. So I did. Even though I was not conscious of it, I kept pursuing advanced
education trying to find him and to realize that love in my life. At age 27, I was accepted into and
entered a doctoral program at an Eastern Ivy League school. The wealth and privilege of the
place was beyond any experience I had had. I wondered why I had been accepted and learned
that the personal statement to my application is what did the trick.
1 Private conversations with Credo Mutwa, Great Sanusi of the Zulu, he refers to the ancient
indigenous wisdom as the Great Knowledge.
I had been afraid to apply, thinking I was not smart enough or good enough. The fear was so
great that I procrastinated until the night before the deadline when I picked up a pen (I didn’t
even type it) and wrote about my grandfather and I, and how he wanted me to go to university.
This was a completely unexpected thing and paradoxical. I was sitting in a busy airport, using
my lap as my desk, but was in a liminal state—a light, energetic, feeling came over me. I felt
alive again, and I had a hunch that I would be accepted. I was.
Getting in the door was one thing. Surviving was another. I didn’t know much about being
American Indian. There were no other Indians and few people of color. My identity and values
were challenged in every way. I did not fit and became more and more angry. This was a Jewish
university filled with brilliantly educated people, who were also intellectually competitive. In
class discussions, I never said a thing. I kept waiting for my chance, but was in a culture that
operated by different ways. People argued, asserted, cut each other off, and never, ever, left a
space open for someone like me to speak.
So, I started to fight. When the professor lectured, up went my hand, the only way to get the