April 25, 2023
Imo Succo is Indigenous Wellbriety’s founder and program manager. She had the idea for Indigenous Wellbriety in graduate school. KSJD / KSUT / By Clark Adomaitis

Indigenous Wellbriety blends Native healing with recovery

KSUT | By Clark Adomaitis

As the sun set behind Sleeping Ute Mountain, about 20 community members sat in the Cortez Community Center listening to the sobriety stories of their neighbors. A Navajo man who struggles with addiction was sharing his journey.

"(I'm) in and out of jail to this day," said Sammy Antez Jr., addressing the others in the group. "I'm still on probation. I'm doing my best to get out of it. It's going to be my last time."

Antez has come a long way. Abuse and addiction affected him, starting in his rural upbringing in Blanding and Montezuma Creek, Utah.

"When I was growing up as a child, six or seven, my dad… used alcohol every day," he said during a recent interview. "I always saw him come home drunk, (he) beat my mom every time he had a chance. In eighth grade, marijuana was the thing. I got myself involved with alcohol, the older kids; you can get your hands on that pretty easy," said Antez.

Within a few years, Antez was frequently in trouble with the law and often used alcohol and drugs. But now, he stood before his fellow community members, sober. In junior high, he lost his grandmother.

"From there on, I lost my life. I lost myself with drug addiction," he said. "I got kicked out of school when I was in junior high, got kicked out of school, been going in and out of juvenile detention."

Antez struggled with addiction into adulthood, caught in a cycle of incarceration and probation. But watching him stand before a group of his peers, it's clear he has turned a corner in his life.

"It was a rough, rough life. I'm glad to be here to share my story and who I am. One hundred percent, I've never felt any better," said Antez.

Even though he struggles actively to stay in recovery, Antez is working to help others as well. He volunteers at the Indigenous Wellbriety program in Cortez, a unique program that combines traditional Native American practices with modern recovery techniques to help people overcome addiction. Members can connect with their cultural roots, embrace their identity, and find purpose and belonging through activities like helping homeless people, potlucks, and Zumba.

Sammy Antez, Jr. is a volunteer with Indigenous Wellbriety. He spoke at the Cortez Cultural Center in March about his path to sobriety. KSJD / KSUT / By Clark Adomaitis

The extended family is an essential aspect of many Native cultures. A vast network of uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins may all help with parenting occasionally. Indigenous Wellbriety allows Antez to see himself as part of a family lineage that gives him strength and clarity.

"I hit the bumpy road. I'm a grandpa now, and I'm seeing what life is all about. Quit drinking and my drug addiction, putting that to the side. It's a pretty good feeling. Indigenous Wellbriety, it's keeping me from not relapsing," he said.

Group meetings become a talking circle

The group meeting is a fundamental part of many addiction recovery programs. Some take place in churches or community centers. In keeping with its indigenous foundations, Wellbriety gathers its members in a talking circle.

"When we provide our talking circles, they don't have to explain the world they're coming from. We're already in it, we already know," said Imo Succo, a certified peer recovery coach and Wellbriety's founder. "We already identify ourselves as indigenous and what it means to be in our space. There's like the sixth sense that we have as Indigenous people."

Succo, a Navajo woman, had the idea for a similar program in graduate school.

"We were assigned to come up with our own program and what our dream program would look like," she said. "I just noticed through observations that a lot of our indigenous clients were having trouble accessing services that are unique to them. In my grad school studies, I was thinking about a Native American Resource Center."

Years later, with more career experience, Succo brought her idea to life in Cortez. With the help of Wellbriety's parent organization, Southwestern Colorado Area Health Education Center, she built the program on principles of Native healing and wellness.

Howard Yazzie is a Navajo elder who works as a peer recovery coach with Indigenous Wellbriety. KSJD / KSUT / By Clark Adomaitis

"In our Navajo culture, harmony means a lot," she said. "That means that if we can maintain ourselves in that way, we're able to balance ourselves out in any environment, whether it's for our physical health, our mental health, or our family environment. The Indigenous approach is more about community. It's family focused."

The program also draws on the wisdom of elders. Howard Yazzie is a Navajo elder with Indigenous Wellbriety.

"I care about young people, people that are in jail, people that are suffering," said Yazzie. "My great ancestors, I'd like to continue teaching (what they taught), making people understand how they should be living a good life and continuing in a good light. They should be going on instead of going into the dark world."

Wellbriety is helping members like Antez and others to continue in a good light. Antez was recently accredited with a medicine wheel and 12-step certification from White Bison, a nationwide organization providing culturally appropriate sobriety training for Native people.

"I want to acknowledge Sammy's participation," said Succo. "He started out in talking circles. And now he's got one White Bison certification, and he's going to be getting another one next week. I really value Sammy. He's got a lot of lived experience. And he's also a huge motivator when he shares his story."

“Indigenous Wellbriety is open to Native American and Non-Native people alike, with talking circles twice a week and other community activities.