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Red Lake ‘Portraits of Recovery’ paints a hopeful picture of Native addiction treatment

The video features the addiction and recovery stories of three Red Lake Chemical Health employees.

The opening shots of “Portraits of Recovery,” a video produced by staff at Red Lake Chemical Health, an addiction-treatment program run by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, feature sweeping views of Red Lake, the large body of water that sits at the physical and spiritual heart of the Red Lake Indian Reservation.

Video participants Sara King, RayShayna Roberts and Carl White.
In Progress
Video participants Sara King, Carl White and RayShayna Roberts.
Opening “Portraits of Recovery” with a view of the lake was intentional, said Karen Norris-Barrett, Red Lake Chemical Health prevention supervisor. Nurturing a connection to nature and the land is a central feature of the Native American approach to recovery: The filmmakers wanted to emphasize that fact.

“As soon as the video starts, you hear music,” Norris-Barrett said, describing the haunting sound of a man drumming and singing that overlays the images. “Then you see the lake.”

“Portraits of Recovery” features the addiction and recovery stories of three Red Lake Chemical Health employees, including Carl White, who describes how, after years of addiction and attempts at treatment, he eventually found sobriety using traditional methods.

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The video, Norris-Barrett explained, shows White describing the traditional nature-based approach he took to recovery at Red Lake Chemical Health. “You see Carl pick the cedar,” she said. “For us, the cedar is a medicine. The video is a beautiful way to show how he did it, how he found sobriety. It shows the lake and the land. Spiritually, Native people are connected to the land, and that’s where everything around us comes from. We connect to that in the video.”

Funded by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Portraits of Recovery” was created as a way for members of the Red Lake Band to share the successes of their reservation-based recovery programs with the wider community.

Karen Norris-Barrett
Karen Norris-Barrett
Too often, the news that comes out about Native Americans and addiction is bad, said Reyna Gonzalez-Rivera, Red Lake Chemical Health project director. Not so long ago, she and Norris-Barrett attended a training that emphasized the importance of establishing positive community norms around addiction. They took that message to heart.

“What we took from that conference was that we wanted to spread positive stories in our community — especially stories that highlight recovery,” Gonzalez-Rivera said. “We’re always hearing about overdoses, about addiction, about the negative things that happen in our community. We decided we need to hear more inspiring stories of recovery, stories about people who are working to recover right here in Red Lake.”

Because the video gives its subjects an opportunity to detail their sobriety journeys, Gonzalez-Rivera said, viewers come away with a feeling of hope — something that seems to be in short supply these days. She and her colleagues wanted to create something that would inspire viewers, and give them the feeling that they or their loved ones have the power inside themselves to break the cycle of addiction.

“We thought that this video would be a good spin on things, that it would put that spark of hope in our community,” Gonzalez-Rivera said. “We all need hope to keep on going. We wanted to feature the stories of three people who have been able to do that.”

Part of a larger collaboration

Red Lake Chemical Health staff first heard about the SAMHSA funding opportunity from Kris Sorensen, executive director of In Progress, a St. Paul-based digital-arts nonprofit.

Founded in the mid-1990s, In Progress was created as a way to connect underserved communities with the tools needed to tell their stories through digital media. A filmmaker and teaching artist, Sorensen was inspired to start In Progress after some young people she’d worked with in their schools approached her and asked to continue their collaboration.

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“We all learned together,” Sorensen said of her first years with her former students. “Out of those learnings came an organization called In Progress.” In the more than two decades it’s been in existence, the nonprofit has focused on, Sorensen explained, “rural and tribal communities and urban communities that don’t have media access.”

Reyna Gonzalez-Rivera
Reyna Gonzalez-Rivera
The partnership between In Progress and the Red Lake Band is one of the organization’s longest-lasting. Sorensen said she has worked with Red Lake members on a number of video and photography projects: When she heard about the SAMHSA funding, she knew that the band would be a perfect match.

Norris-Barrett said that she and her colleagues at Red Lake Chemical Health have had good experiences working on with In Progress, so when Sorensen told them about the potential funding, they decided to jump on the opportunity.

“We’ve worked with Kris a number of times on films and trainings and some of our staff are artists with In Progress,” Norris-Barrett said. “We’ve always collaborated through the years. I thought it was a beautiful idea.”

The video project Norris-Barrett and her team proposed featured three staff members — White, RayShayna Roberts and Sara King  — who’d approached their recovery through nature-based traditional methods. All three had already told their stories at tribal gatherings and in recovery meetings. In the video, they talk about the different ways that interacting with the natural world and returning to their Native roots helped them turn away from addiction.

“They are still in early recovery,” Norris-Barrett said of White, Roberts and King, “but they were eager to tell their stories. When I asked them, they said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ll do it.’”

The SAMHSA funding came through during the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned out to be a good thing, Gonzalez-Rivera said, because people in the isolated Red Lake community needed something to take their minds away from the worries caused by sickness, isolation and social distancing.

“After COVID started, and we had to be away from others, we took the time to put this video together. It gave us an opportunity to keep on working on something important during the pandemic.”

“Portraits of Recovery” will be an important tool in spreading the word about the power of the Native approach to recovery, Sorensen said. The stories it illustrates feel honest and inspirational, she added.

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“The people at Red Lake have done amazing work around building positive norms in the community as a means of supporting people through recovery,” she said. “This video emphasizes that in an amazing way.”

‘Being home makes a big difference’

The Native approach to recovery is different from practices used in mainstream addiction-treatment centers, Norris-Barrett said. While some Native Americans are able to achieve sobriety in programs based outside of Indian Country, many have a hard time maintaining their recovery long term.

She explained that at Red Lake Chemical Health, treatment is focused on the Native way of thinking and walking through the world.

Kris Sorensen
Kris Sorensen
“Our treatment program is unique because we use our cultural ways. We use traditional medicine. We use ceremonies. We go out into the community, and clients can go to fellowship meetings. They can go ricing or participate in important community events, like the Color Run.”

Norris-Barrett said that she and her husband have been sober for 31 years. Her own approach to recovery followed a path that included traditional Native methods.

“My dad helped me recover,” Norris-Barrett explained. “He smoked a traditional pipe for me for one year. After that year was over, I went into recovery on my own. My dad didn’t tell me he’d done what he’d done until years later.”

Norris-Barrett and her husband, Red Lake Chemical Health Executive Director Tom Barrett, stopped using at the same time. “We did it ourselves,” she explained. “I wanted a different life for my kids. We didn’t go into treatment. When we started working at Red Lake Chemical Health, that helped us maintain our recovery.”

Many clients at Red Lake Chemical Health first sought help for their addiction in mainstream recovery programs in larger communities like Bemidji or the Twin Cities, but eventually returned home to Red Lake when they couldn’t stop using, Norris-Barrett said.

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“There are people who’ve gone away to other treatment programs and then they’ve come back here to seek our services. Connecting with our cultural ways like we do here is something really specific and really effective. For Native people, it helps recovery in a big way — and just being home makes a big difference, too.”

By focusing on three people “who are able to recover here at home,” Gonzalez-Rivera said, “Portraits of Recovery” emphasizes the power of the Native American approach to addiction treatment. Good things can happen in Red Lake, she said, and she hopes that the project will make that fact clear: “The norm has been that you have to leave the reservation to get sober. I think differently. This video shows that we can recover at home.”

Recovering at home means being around people who intimately understand the struggles that many Native Americans face when it comes to substance use, Gonzalez-Rivera said.

Recovery in a Native-run program, she explained, “is totally different from leaving the reservation to go to a non-Native facility where you don’t know anyone. In Red Lake, we know everybody.” At programs like Red Lake Chemical Health, she said, staff know how to treat addiction in a way that addresses the unique needs and perspectives of a Native American population, she added.

“Humor has a big place in the work we do. We’re always laughing. That’s a big part of the way we approach recovery. People don’t always talk about this, but Native people like to joke. It helps us get through tough times. That’s not always the case in other programs.”

Taking the message to the public

While Gonzalez-Rivera thinks it is important for members of the Red Lake Band to view “Portraits of Recovery,” and absorb the important message it spreads, she especially wants it to be seen by people outside of their reservation.

“Karen and I and the team thought that story needs to be shared with a broader audience, to show that our own community members were able to recover at home,” she said. She thinks that Native people living in non-Indian communities could benefit from seeing the video — and maybe be inspired to come back to the reservation to recover: “I’m hoping we see more people who are coming back home from active using and realizing that there is a way for them to recover here.”

To make sure that the video is seen by as many people as possible, the filmmakers posted it on social media, Sorensen said. “Red Lake Chemical Health runs a Facebook page called ‘Our Red Lake Spirit.’ That’s where we premiered the videos. They’ve already had 1,500 or 2,000 views and a ton of shares.”

“Portraits of Recovery” will also be shared as part of an upcoming arts-and-culture exchange tour between a number of reservations in Minnesota. “We go to their communities and we show them our videos,” Norris-Barrett said. The tour also includes a set of visual portraits of community members that travel from reservation to reservation, she added: “We’ll hang the portraits at our tribal college. They’ll be on display for six weeks.”

Norris-Barrett said that creating “Portraits of Recovery” was a spiritual journey for herself and the rest of the filmmaking team. “When you start working a project you have to put out your tobacco and pray for guidance and help,” she said. “That’s what I do. That way I feel better about the process. Then the ideas start flowing and I can start researching.”

The hope is that this spiritually inspired video project will travel far and wide, reaching people who felt that their addictions put them beyond help. “If they can see this video maybe it might change their lives.” If the right person sees it, Norris-Barrett added, miraculous things could happen. “I believe this video will help people in active addition take that first step and ask for help. I think it is important that this video is out there now. It could save somebody’s life.”