By Brett Larson Inaajimowin Staff Writer
On June 23, Jason Sam will have three years of sobriety under his belt, and like most people in recovery — old timers or newbies — he relies on the support that meetings can provide.
But when Jason married his wife, Carrie, and moved to Isle two years ago, he didn't feel comfortable in the meetings he attended, and the ones he liked were a long distance from his home in Isle.
Jason decided to start a new group that meets Fridays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Chiminising Community Center. For now, he's simply calling it "Our Healing Group" but eventually wants to give it an Ojibwe name.
That’s only right, since it’s Ojibwe culture that Jason wants the group to rely upon — and it’s Ojibwe culture Jason credits with helping him in his recovery.
Jason grew up in the Twin Cities, moving back and forth between St. Paul and Minneapolis, compounding the childhood traumas of addiction and domestic violence.
Like many young men growing up with those challenges, Jason became an addict, ran with gangs, couldn’t hold a job, and spent years going in and out of prison. “I was lost for many years,“ said Jason.
And then he turned 40.
"Forty seemed to be a mark. It was like, 'Damn, you're 40 now.' I was ready to make a decision. Either I was gonna go all the way on the path I was on, or all the way in sobriety. I decided, 'I'll try sobriety for a year, and if it don't work out, and I can't be sober and can't function, then I guess this other life is meant for me.' It was a decision I was willing to make, and I've been on a roll ever since. Life is looking good, and there's no reason for me to turn back.'
Jason checked into Juel Fairbanks in St. Paul, where he met a group of friends who introduced him to smudging, the dewe’igan, sweat lodges, and the opwaagan.
By this time, Jason was ready to connect with his traditions and spirituality. But it wasn’t always that way.
"In jail I always seen people get serious and start to pray, but I never wanted to embrace my religion until I was fully ready. I didn’t want to be in it halfway. I wasn’t ready for religion until I got sober."
One of the friends he made at Juel Fairbanks was James Cross, founder of Natives Against Heroin.
"I knew him before in the penitentiary life," said Jason. "When I got sober this time at Juel Fairbanks, he was doing something there, getting back to the culture. I thought, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"
Even though Jason hadn’t been on heroin, he joined the movement. "I seen a lot of our people dying because of it," he said. "It was a good cause, and I wanted to stand for it."
Jason appreciated the openness and lack of strict guidelines. There was no judgment, no criticism, no cries of "You’re not doing it right."
It’s that attitude he hopes to bring to his new group, along with a focus on culture and tradition.
"It’s not Sober Squad, it’s not Natives Against Heroin, it’s not Bill W (AA). I just want to provide another option."
Watching and Learning
Jason is a soft-spoken man who doesn't always like to open up to others. "For me I don’t want to let everybody know what’s going on. If I need guidance, I go by the lake and put my tobacco in the water for the manidoos, and I let it out and ask for direction or some kind of sign."
Like everyone, though, he needs help from others sometimes, like his friends from Juel Fairbanks, who still offer each other support.
As he considered his own needs in recovery, Jason decided to provide a place for people to come and smudge, smoke the opwaagan, sing, share, or just listen.
Jason appreciates those who have shown up at his meetings — Terry Kemper, Luther Sam, and Ogiimaa (Bob Eagle), to name a few. They’ve brought a drum and a pipe and a lot of old songs. Jason enjoys listening and learning from them.
"I’ve been up here two years, and those are the people I’ve been watching. They're not trying to steal the show, but just want their traditions to be known."
A couple new people have also turned up who were looking for support and heard about the group through Facebook or word of mouth.
That’s what it’s all about for Jason.
"I just want it to be a place where we can come and smudge and meet, sing some songs, smoke the opwaagan, and do it again next week. It keeps me and my wife stable, because we’re just trying to help other people."