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The Thirteenth Step – One Man’s Odyssey of Redemption An interview with Robert Hayward (Winnebago)

Jordan Wright
March 10, 2012
Special to Indian Country Today Magazine

The Thirteenth Step by Robert Hayward - photo credit Mark Chambers

The Thirteenth Step by Robert Hayward - photo credit Mark Chambers

By the time author Robert Hayward (Winnebago) decided to write about his journey to redemption in The Thirteenth Step – One Man’s Odyssey of Recovery, he had been through hell and back.  His resume read like a psych report – drug dealer, addict and full-blown alcoholic.  After 26 years of self-destruction his physical health had suffered, his mind had deteriorated, and his relationships with his parents, wife and three kids were on a fast track to nowhere.

What makes this revelatory book so compelling is Hayward’s honesty and heartfelt sincerity coupled with his admission of failure and his decision to turn to tribal wisdom to heal.  It is an intriguing insight into the Native American Church’s peyote cleansing rituals yet a cautionary tale to all substance abusers.  Though the Church’s practice of using peyote as a sacred sacrament in its ceremonies is perfectly legal for tribal members [under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994], it is still controversial and fraught with negative connotations since the 1960’s when it was used experimentally by the counter culture.

To this day there are very few members permitted to conduct this sacred religious ritual and they are referred to as ‘Roadmen’.  During the lengthy, ritualistic event, Hayward experienced powerful revelations.  Eventually with the trust and guidance of the church’s leaders he was granted permission to reveal the ceremony to the outside world and give his profoundly personal account.

Interview with Robert Hayward

Jordan Wright – You seem to have emerged from a nightmare of alcoholism and drug addiction like a phoenix rising from the ashes.  What have been the rewards?

Robert Hayward – I started out using at age 14, so for 26 years I was in a daze.  Yet immediately after walking out of that tipi my life has been clear.  From then on I have been alive.

I knew I was reaching rock bottom.  I remember fishing with my sons and I was in a fog.  I was looking at them and had an out of body experience like, ‘I’m not participating.  I’m just a drunken mess.’   But now I have clarity, plus I developed a compassion for people that have the same problem.  I wanted to reach out and help and that’s why I went back to school to study to become a counselor.  It really reinforced my need to prevent other people from falling into the same trap.

JW – Why didn’t you succumb to any of the dangers associated with drug and alcohol use?

RH – I was never arrested because I was selling to the cops and I knew when busts were going down.  But there was always danger.  And the fact that I’m alive is amazing since I’ve been to over 200 funerals over the years and most were related to alcohol or drugs.  Most of the people I grew up with are either dead or in jail or still on drugs or alcohol.

JW – It seems almost like a cult of tragedy.

RH – Yes, in a way we loved the drama.  We lived for it.  It was like – who could be the most distraught.

JW – Do you think there is another way to reach young people or addicts without the use of peyote in a healing ceremony?  And as you go forward as a counselor how you think your ways will be most effective?

RH – My primary focus will be the treatment of Native Americans.  But on the other hand I still counsel as a volunteer at A Better Tomorrow, a treatment center here, and of course I don’t use peyote there.  Basically alcohol addiction is universally a spiritual problem and it only has a spiritual solution.  If you look at the twelve-step program, the third step is the key. And I tell people if you can’t take the first two steps of the program, don’t waste your time with the rest of the steps.  You have to turn your will and your life over to God as you understand him – you have to have a higher power.  And that really is the key and how you go about that is a personal thing.

No matter what race people are, they have indigenous roots and people respond well to simple things like a campfire at night.  I’ll take a group of young people and we’ll talk in a circle and it’s a type of spirituality.  It has a calming effect.  I’ll put the cedar in the fire and bless them with the feathers and we talk using the same rules as the tipi.  They open up and talk, as opposed to sitting in a treatment room where they tell you, “You have 45 minutes to spill your guts.”  Even a group of strangers will bond.  I think the key is to create a bond.  We also pass around water to get the four elements going.  Once you have shared a night together in a ceremony, you become a relative to everyone there – no longer separated by blood, but bonded by the spirit.

The trend is to turn towards a chemical short-term solution to get the addict through the early stages of abstinence so that they have a better chance at avoiding relapse.  The problem is that there’s a 96% or 97% failure rate in the recovery field and which creates a revolving door in some of these treatment centers that charge up to $30,000 per month, so they’re not super anxious to fix it because people keep coming back and the insurance companies keep paying for it.  If they can get three cycles out of each person they’re not real motivated for success.

JW – Can you talk about your interest in starting national programs to help addicts?

RH – I’ll work with John Halpern, MD [Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Director of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center] for who is looking for grants for programs for Native Americans.

The model would be to have an area on a reservation with four tipis and separate the sexes.  We’d take the hardcore repeaters for the first night and run them through the ceremony – though it’s critical they go through chemical detox first.  Then we would have a ceremony for everyone with members of the Native American Church in order to make a complete circle.  What you do in a month in a treatment center, you can do in one night in a tipi.  This will speed up their recovery and open up their heart.  They would live without cell phones or TVs and we’d have drumming and songs and eating outside.  Ideally we would have horses too.  What I really want to see from this program is real success.  I want to see people not identifying themselves as an addict, which I see as incredibly negative affirmation.

What we have in the Native American Church is a support system for Indian people because it becomes a lifestyle.  The social aspects are incredible after we go through the ceremonial night – the bonding is incredible.  And then the next morning we become as relatives.  It has a lasting bond that becomes our identities.  The spiritual aspect is important as well.  They have to get a sustainable program going whatever group or church they’re in.  I want to start a system that is positive for people – to talk about things that are better. There is a huge demand for that.

JW – Can you talk about the importance of spiritual education from our elders?

RH – That was one of the things that really struck me in that ceremony because the way it works is that ‘The Roadman’ runs it and also speaks throughout the night and different people will talk as the medicine leads you.  He will give elder wisdom during the night.  There is a huge value to it.

When I counsel kids I ask them what is your real tribal name and clan and then I send them to their elders to talk to them.  A lot of these guys think the idea of being Indian is hanging a feather on the rearview mirror of their truck.  They don’t even know anything about their family or their tribe, so they lost that identity which then becomes games and alcohol and drugs.  Once they sit down and talk to their elders, who are dying to talk to these kids, they come back all excited with stories.  It totally changes the way they look at themselves.

The elders would teach us and raise us the way we are supposed to be raised.  It’s a huge problem that what we do in all of society is put our elders in housing and separate them – let them rot and grow old.  But what you can learn from the elders is stuff you can’t get from books or anywhere else.  Unfortunately what you see now is that kids have no respect for elders anymore.  And it’s sad.  You miss the generational connection without that.

TiPi in Daylight - photo credit Robert Hayward.

TiPi in Daylight - photo credit Robert Hayward.

In tribal groups I talk about the concept of ‘seven generations’.  Seven generations ago my ancestors were praying that I would be alive today and that’s the only reason that I am alive.  Our duty is to pray for the next seven generations so that there is still clean air and still clean water and still a place to hide in the trees.

We need to keep that continuous cycle so that we don’t just pray for today or tomorrow and live our life that way.  The reason that Indian people are having this problem right now is because we are living in the seventh generation since the conquest.  So many Indian people were chased off or diseased that they didn’t have the opportunity to pray for this generation, so the circle was broken at that point.   We miss those prayers and a lot of the reason we have these problems now is that our ancestors were unable to pray for us.

So there’s this revival about the seventh generation and it’s in all kinds of prophesies that amongst this current generation young kids will rise up and they will they will have dreams and visions and start to bring back the old ways and start reviving the traditions and I’m seeing that, kids that are learning the songs and how to drum at nine years old and you can see the power coming out of them.  The best thing that I see happening is the young kids at the pow wows are starting to dress up again and dance and that’s where you see the connection with their elders who are trying to pass this on to the kids.  The kids look up to them and that’s where I see the hope.

JW – What has the response been to your talks?

RH – They are really well received, especially when I start off with the video on my website [] and the crowd will grow, they really get into the story.  Nowadays there is a technological separation because of texting, etc.  It’s become a novelty to talk to each other.  But for me I feed on the energy of the group.  I let them know that it’s time we stood up and became accountable.  We owe it to our ancestors to get this right.  We have to stop this cycle of drinking.  Indian people did not drink.  There was no such thing as fermented drink.  We lack the enzymes to process alcohol or sugar.  It ruins our lives – the abuse and everything.  People need to hear that there is hope.  We need to start giving them something.

I am realizing that the true niche for this book is all Native Americans, because we haven’t had a book written by one of us with our perspective and way of life fully explained in a long time, if ever.  It is fast becoming a book that we as Indians can call our own.

We have the opportunity as spiritual caretakers of this land to hear the words of our ancestors because they [the words] are floating in the wind.  Their blood is in these rivers and we are part of this earth.  Our ancestors are waiting for us to call on them to heal and we have that opportunity.  I hear that drumbeat sitting inside the tipi and I get this incredible feeling.  We have to reconnect with that ground because it’s ours – it’s all sacred ground.  We all have to put more respect back into the earth.

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