NARA conference celebrates culture, recovery

By Bill Graves, The Oregonian, Nov. 2, 2011

NARA drum circle

NARA’s All Nations Drum Circle wrapped up the conference.

Social and health care workers attending the second annual conference of the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest this week in Portland learned about diabetes and suicide prevention, but they also picked up tips on how to make dream catchers and medicine bags.

The three-day event on the Columbia River at the Red Lion Inn at Jantzen Beach mixed panels of experts on NARA’s medical and social services with drums, dances, songs, a powwow,a Halloween party, prayers, motivational speakers and endless raffles.

The gathering, which ended Wednesday, reflected NARA’s integrated, cultural approach to health care and social work that addresses not only the physical, but the mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of wellness. The Native-owned, Native-operated nonprofit’s slogan: We are mission driven, and spirit led.

“We hope the experience of being here helps people get a feel for the culture,” Jacqueline Mercer, chief executive officer, said Wednesday as a circle of Native Americans pounded a drum and sang. “Spirituality is the essence of what NARA is about.”

NARA opened 41 years ago in Portland to help Native Americans struggling with addictions. It has evolved into a $15.5 million operation employing 170 people.

The Indian Health Service gives money to NARA to serve urban Indians. With six buildings and a seventh to open soon, NARA runs health clinics and a residential treatment program and provides family support services, mental health care and a range of cultural activities.

Its capacity to stage an annual conference, which Mercer said drew about 500 people this year from Oregon and other states, reflects the organization’s maturity.

“I wish we had something like this in South Dakota,” said Mary Arntz, a nurse specializing in diabetes. “We came here to explore the culture and learn about it.”

Joy Penaloza, a clinical supervisor for Providence Health & Services in Portland, said she was struck by the many stories that people told during the conference. “There is such a realness to them,” she said.

Pam Whelan told a story about her 2002 treatment in NARA’s residential program, where she now works as a counselor. She had no idea what spirituality was then, she said, but she started attending the weekly sweat lodge ceremony NARA offers. At first she would only tend the fire that heats rocks for the sweat lodge. Finally one day, she went in.

“I cried like a little baby and felt like I came home,” she said. “Culture is where it starts for our Native people.”

NARA uses a holistic approach to help Native residents “live as long as you are supposed to,” said Leroy Bigboy, also a counselor and a member of the Sioux from South Dakota. “We show them how to regroup the body, mind and spirit, all three, to come together and be a good, productive human being,” he said.

Robert Johnston, of the Muscogee Creek and Choctaw nations, wrapped up the gathering before about 100 people Wednesday morning, with a speech on positive thinking.

“This might seem like just another conference,” he said. “When we are talking about good things, it is ceremony. Mark this week as a time when something changes.”