Shaking off the wigwam

National | How a Native American escaped his addiction-and is leading others out of the same bondage

Issue: "Rockwell's resurgence," Nov. 24, 2001

Pilgrims and Indians talked not only turkey but theology. Nearly four centuries later, that story continues, as Gordon Thayer can relate. In the mid-'70s, after two decorated Vietnam tours and a life of alcohol, Mr. Thayer returned to the Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation in Wisconsin, yearning for roots and release from addiction. In 1977, he was elected chairman of his Ojibwe tribe. A few years later, awaiting heart surgery, he heard voices promising healing if he'd participate in "shaking the wigwam." This would mean accompanying medicine men to a remote area where powers would convulse a ceremonial tent. A missionary from his childhood Sunday school, though, dropped by and declared God's superiority to those spirits. Although Mr. Thayer despised her for polluting people's minds, he told her of the increasingly vehement voices, and then mouthed words, just to get rid of her, as the voices within jeered. Months of dark harassment climaxed one evening in unbearable clamor. Through Christian relatives that night, Mr. Thayer perceived God's power and committed himself to Christ. He made his conversion public by burning his Native American spirit paraphernalia. Later, he earned an M.A. and, in 1986, joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Minneapolis, where he worked on an initiative to fight homelessness. Mr. Thayer also attended Overcomers of Alcohol, a weekly addiction-recovery meeting led by a local pastor. In 1988 he and his wife Sheila became the leaders of that group and began Overcomers Outreach Ministries, a broad expansion of the original ministry. There are still weekly gatherings for music, speakers, and testimonies. Overcomers also offers crisis intervention and will soon begin an outpatient treatment program. In 1992 Mr. Thayer resigned his government position and founded the American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation (AIHCDC), a nonprofit, secular organization that receives foundation, government, and corporate grants to benefit homeless Indians in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. AIHCDC is housed in the same building as Overcomers and maintains close ties with it. While solving a housing problem, Mr. Thayer may recognize a personal need and send someone upstairs to his wife in the Overcomers office; she counsels people spiritually and often sends them downstairs to AIHCDC for other services. AIHCDC's receptionist, Deloris Pike, who became a Christian five years ago through Overcomers meetings, lives at On Eagle's Wings, a recent partnership project of Overcomers and AIHCDC. The renovated apartment building was long derelict and cost all of one dollar to purchase, but it is now a secure home-haven for recovering Native Americans. AIHCDC also operates Anishinabe Wakiagun, a home for late-stage alcoholics who otherwise would be on the street. Wakiagun is the last home for most of them, but one AIHCDC staff member-formerly at Wakiagun-has been employed since 1996, maintaining her sobriety throughout and regaining guardianship of her three sons. The Thayers also travel to Mishkeegogamang Ojibwe Reserve in Northern Ontario, and with a pastor there offer evangelistic services and counseling. After 11 years of relationship-building they are still chipping away at the Native resistance to Christianity, which is intensified by residual grief and resentment over past generations of children lost to their people in the name of assimilation into "majority" society. Religious boarding schools were often the vehicles for such assimilation. Since the Thayers are the only staff of Overcomers, with a board of directors for advice and support, they rely heavily on volunteers. Several local churches are partners, providing holiday meals and gifts to Indian families and supporting special events such as a week-long Native American Family Camp. Overcomers also offers seminars on Native culture and cultural differences in communication. Body language, for example, can mislead: To a non-Indian, averted eyes may denote shiftiness, while an Indian reads them as deference and politeness. More basic differences are internal. Culturally, Native Americans are attuned to the spiritual world, but do not relate to the Christian's God. Mr. Thayer estimates that only 1.5 percent of the Native population of his metropolitan area are churchgoers. To help them and others, he says, Christians should "be like Velcro-stick for a long time. Patient, one-on-one mentoring is so important, and friendship that develops with closeness and time."

-Noël Piper is a Minneapolis writer

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