Nobody said it was going to be easy.
Billings authors Adrian Jawort and Russell Rowland took on a complex, divisive and longstanding problem when they started the Native American Race Relations and Healing Consortium last year.
Their inaugural event, an all-day symposium featuring three different panel discussions, attracted nearly 75 people to the Billings Public Library in August.
The second offering was held Thursday night in the library’s Royal Johnson Community Room, and drew about 35 people. It was the first in what is projected to be a monthly series of lectures and discussions.
The 90-minute event featured two counselors who were scheduled to talk about mental health and addictions, and the resources available to those in need. Their remarks and the discussion that followed seemed a bit formless at times, heavy on anecdotes and light on solutions.
But by the end of the session there was the feeling that maybe this was the way forward—just talking about things that mattered to individuals, telling a few truths, introducing people to new ideas and establishing relationships.
As one of the main speakers, Crystal Rondeaux-Hickman, said, “We start changing the world by showing up.”
Jawort said he thought it was important to talk about addictions because it is “the elephant in the room.” A white man at the August symposium said the only Indians he ever saw were drunks on the street, and while that might be an absurd or bigoted observation, Jawort said, it was true that a large proportion of drunken transients in Billings are Native American.
One reason for that, Rondeaux-Hickman said, was that Indians are used to surrounding themselves with extended families, and when a person is forced to leave his family because of his shameful addictions, he creates a new family on the street, consisting of fellow alcoholics.
Most Indians, she said, are “contextual people,” who measure themselves by the number and depth of their relationships.
Rondeaux-Hickman has worked as a mental health professional for many years in Billings and is now a mental health facilitator for the state Office of Public Instruction in Pryor. The other speaker was Joel Simpson, whose job is to help street people deal with their addictions and mental health problems.
His is a counselor at the Rimrock Foundation and is also the resource outreach coordinator for the downtown Billings Alliance. He works with downtown police officers to provide case management, advocacy and outpatient counseling to transients.
He cited some familiar statistics and gave a few updates. Before he started working the streets last March, he said, people working on homelessness had determined that of the 700 to 800 people considered homeless in Billings on any given day, 74 were identified as chronic offenders, public inebriates always in trouble with the law.
And 96 percent of those 74 people were Native American, said Simpson, a member of the Crow Tribe. But there has been marked progress. He said he has made contact with 56 of those 74 people and has gotten many of them into treatment.
He said three street people in particular had 44 arrests among them during a one-year period. During the past five months, all three have been in treatment programs and none has been involved in a single police call, he said. He also mentioned that one man graduated from the treatment program in October, after a life on the streets in various cities, and a second man is scheduled to graduate in February.
Contrary to popular conceptions, Simpson said, everyone he meets on the street hangs on to some strength, takes pride in some artifact of his past and hopes, however faintly, to get beyond addiction and life on the street.
“Every one of them, at one point, had a life that didn’t involve living on the streets,” he said.
After Rondeaux-Hickman and Simpson spoke, a woman who identified herself as the product of a Sioux-Cheyenne mother and a Scots-Irish father told a long, harrowing story of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, rape and repeated stints in prison.
“As a half-breed—that’s what you’re called on the rez,” she said, it was hard to find an identity, which contributed to her search for a chemical solution to her problems. She said she “hit rock bottom many times” but has completed a state treatment program, has been clean since last March and is preparing to study marketing at Montana State University Billings.
“I’ve been doing really well,” she said at the conclusion of her extended talk. “I look forward to my future.”
That prompted another woman, half Crow and half Dutch, to ask what the point of the evening was. “I wanted to hear about solutions,” she said. A little later, she said she didn’t drink, but alcohol abuse by others had caused her so much pain that she didn’t even want to talk about it. And at that point she left.
Another woman said it was all good, that people “need to tell our stories,” however painful, and need to listen to one another. Several others in the crowd agreed, saying the solution might not lie with programs or organizations but simply in continuing dialogue, empathy and close listening.
One audience member, Dan Struckman, turned to the woman who had related a life of abuse and violence, whose story had as yet been greeted only by stunned silence, and thanked her for having the courage to tell her story. “I’m grateful to you,” he said.
Jawort then read a quote from the write Franz Kafka, who said that while it is possible to hold oneself back from the suffering of the world, “perhaps this very holding back is one suffering you could avoid.”
Simpson asked people to remember that all these efforts to help transients get back on their feet arose from grassroots meetings of downtown residents and business owners, not government officials. He also said we should celebrate the fact that city police officers and Tina Volek, the city administrator, sat down with the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and asked its members for ideas and solutions.
“When have you seen that?” he asked.
The next lecture in the series is scheduled for Feb. 17 at the library. John J. Robinson, former president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, will speak on tribal sovereignty.