Growing up in Northeast Ohio, the first time I heard the word tribe was in reference to the Cleveland Indians. Our major league baseball team is nicknamed “The Tribe,” and it was a common phrase uttered in my household. Like many young Cleveland fans, I was spoon-fed the story that our ball club was named to honor Louis Sockalexis, the first full-blooded Native American individual to play in the major leagues (on the then Cleveland Spiders) from 1897-1899. Of course there is not a great deal of truth in that story, as journalist Joe Posanski unpacks in his excellent 2014 article. Yet any time I heard challenges for the Indians to change their name, my rather conservative family would say, “But it was named to honor the first Native American to play in the major leagues.”
As we say in circles of recovery, anything after but is generally bullshit.
The Cleveland Indians are once again rethinking their name, as are many sports teams that trivialize or demean Native Americans by their moniker. The time is truly now for white people in positions of power to do a great deal of rethinking, and that includes we white folks who’ve grow so accustomed to using the word tribe without fully considering its origins and the intentions of our use. A cursory glance on Instagram reveals memes like Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe and Find Your Tribe—Love Them Hard. I especially notice this tendency in white women endeavoring to be part of conscious culture, and quite frankly, it’s long bothered me.
As I came of age, I encountered other uses of tribe aside from the nickname of my favorite baseball team, including the twelve tribes of Israel, tribal dance, tribal warfare, and usages of tribe in other Indigenous histories. Ever the word geek, it’s my natural tendency to turn toward etymology. The English word tribe is Latin in origin, referencing the “tri” or three-part organization of the Roman state along ethnic lines. In English, tribe generally refers to a grouping of people who have something in common, whether that be ethnic or cultural similarities. In history and anthropology, the general connotation is that a tribe exists within a larger nation, country, or some other distinct group. As it relates to Native Americans, tribe is a Federal or State government distinction to denote enclaves within the various nations. In speaking with my closest Native American friend about this issue, she shared that she sees tribe more as a colonizing government term rather than a distinction that has actual meaning to her as a Native woman. In their 2001 article The Trouble with Tribe, Chris Love elucidates that there are so many meanings and connotations to the word tribe, it’s difficult to have clarity. If you come from an ethnic background where the word tribe or your personal connection to tribe has a great deal of meaning to you, claim that connection if you chose.
Yet as white people from European backgrounds, do we really have that right? My gut sense is no, especially if our intent in using the word is just to appear more “conscious,” “inclusive,” or even “hip” without doing the real work behind it. I see what progressives and conscious communities are trying to do with the word tribe—viewing it as an extension of the “family of choice” concept that is so vitally important to those of use, especially those of us who identify as LGBT+. Yet there are two problems here: the tendency to get cliquish in the name of consciousness, and very real possibility that we are getting inappropriately appropriative just to sound cool.
When I first heard tribe used in the conscious community, my stomach churned and signaled danger. In 2011, I took a training in a popular dance method at an elite yoga center. Everyone in that community kept referring to themselves as being “in the tribe,” or “finding my tribe,” suggesting that outsiders somehow didn’t get them, or even that outsiders or other divisives were not welcome. This bothered me so much that when members of Dancing Mindfulness, a dance community that I went on to create in 2012, started using the word tribe with regularity, I got worried. I expressed my worry about the cliquish nature of the word to several in our leadership, suggesting that I preferred a term like a community. For me, community suggests room to grow. And yes, I identify as having many members of my family of choice (some from the Dancing Mindfulness community and others from outside of it). Yet I’ve never felt the need to use the word “tribe” to express any of this.
The bigger problem that white people must examine is whether or not we are using the term tribe to appear to gain social capital with others. Is there something more hip about using a word like tribe instead of community, circle, family of choice, or even “my people”? I don’t have a full answer to this question that I’m willing to put out there definitively as I am still doing so much of this work for myself. I am, however, encouraging others who have a tendency to use this word to engage in some inquiry about why and how you use it.
There can be a fine line between cultural adaptation and cultural appropriation, between honoring someone or some group and just using them. Take Louis Sockalexis, the member of the Penobscot nation, whom scores of Cleveland Indians fans maintain that they “honor” by capitalizing on the name and, until very recently, the racist “Chief Wahoo” mascot. Sockalexis was openly mocked and tortured for his heritage during his tenure playing professional baseball, and when he died at the age of 42 after a long battle of what we now know as alcoholism, sportswriters referred to the cause of his career decline and death as “the Indian weakness.” Do we consider this undeniable heritage of pain and trauma when we are quick to defend ourselves as “honoring” a culture? Do we consider this undeniable heritage of pain and trauma when we use a word like “tribe”?
You may be experiencing a degree of defensiveness right now by engaging this question, especially if you are a white person who uses the word tribe or engages in any practice from other cultures, which includes yoga and Eastern meditation practices. My suggestion is to notice what it’s bringing up in you and do the deep digging. Several months ago, I was rightfully called out on how I used a Native American song and practice within a Dancing Mindfulness class. I am grateful to the young Indigenous person who felt empowered enough to do it. Of course, I felt defensive at first, even drawing back to some of the same excuses I heard from other Cleveland Indians fans (e.g., “I was just trying to honor,” or “I want to be inclusive”). The more I sat with the feelings, the more I realized there was work to do and that the young person was correct. Using something without knowing the full truth of the source or, in many cases, getting necessary permission is not okay for anyone who calls themselves conscious.
As someone who teaches and also refuses to copyright my adapted approach to universal practice that is fundamentally Eastern in origin (it’s not mine to copyright), I’ve had to do the hard work around going to the source for teachings while also examining how teachings can be adapted for Western and clinical audiences. I do not have all of the answers and I am sure that my exploration will lead me to discover other changes I need to make if I truly want to be anti-racist. My challenge to you, my friends, is to join me on this journey of self-inquiry and growing more comfortable with being uncomfortable, especially when you are invited to rethink an attachment.
If there was a category in my high school yearbook for “Most Likely to Become a Junkie,” I would not have been a contender. Indeed, I was voted “Class Brain.” And none of my smarts could prevent me from developing an addiction problem on top of an already budding mental illness. I spent the Fall of 2000 in a state of suicidal use, not caring whether I’d ever wake up. Even as I tried to get sober and well shortly after turning 21, I didn’t think I’d make it past 24.
These period of days from July 4-July 8 are quite celebratory. Most everyone in the U.S. is in a festive place on July 4th, my belly button birthday is July 6th, and my sobriety anniversary is July 8th. This year I turn 40, a momentous occasion for me who once believed I couldn’t ever survive this long. And I celebrate 17 years of sobriety. At the start of these special days, my spirit was somewhat dampened when I saw a friend post a “joke” from a parody account set up to represent an Ohio municipality. The post apologized to members of the city for having a scaled-back fireworks display this year, due to the fact that they’ve spent so much money on Narcan. And they “thanked the junkies” for ruining everyone’s freedom celebration.
I have a very crude sense of humor and I am not a person who easily offends. And this “joke” infuriates me in a way I struggle to put into words. Whenever you talk shit about alcoholics or addicts due to your own ignorance, misinformation, resentments, or unhealed wounds, you are also talking shit about me and scores of people that I love. There are many others who would look at me and the life I’ve built today and say, “But Jamie, you’re different.”
I’m really not.
Yes, I am successful by every conventional American definition of the word.
That’s because recovery defines my lifestyle today.
And it began in a place where I was just as desperate as any other “junkie” who may need revived in the back of an ambulance.
People who meet me now or only knew a very public version of me as a child can have difficulty attuning to this reality. A few years ago after marriage equality became the law of the land, I attended my first same-sex wedding in my hometown. The ceremony was beautiful. I cried through most of it, not ever believing I would see this in my lifetime. And my illusions of liberal paradise were short-lived. I was seated randomly with one of the groom’s family members. He came around at the beginning of the reception and introduced me, “Dr. Jamie Marich,” to everyone at the table. He gushed about how accomplished I was, that I was an author, and everyone at the table seemed impressed.
Towards the end of the meal, the opiate crisis came up as a topic of conversation. One of the family members stated quite bluntly what a travesty it was that we wasted so much money on Narcan, especially for frequent fliers.
“They should just let the junkies die already.”
Of course this was not the first time I’d heard talk like this. A few years prior at an extended family event, I heard someone opining that the government should euthanize people who fail treatment after three tries. And yet this was at a gay wedding, where most in attendance seemed to be tolerant.
My stomach churned, unable to finish my meal, realizing just how much of a stigma problem we still have on our hands. I found myself in that familiar position of freeze, wanting to say so much, yet fearing danger if I did. I wanted to ask that guy, “What if it was your child in the back of that ambulance,” or challenge him with, “And what issue is happening in your life that you’re failing to address? I’m sure your stuff is causing harm to those you love, just maybe in a different way? Have you ever considered that scapegoating addicts may help you feel better about yourself and the role that people like you play in perpetuating a trauma epidemic that people take opiates for?”
At one point the mother of the person making the comment said to me, “I’m sorry if this is upsetting you, this isn’t the best dinner conversation.”
In fairness, the mother, a nurse, challenged her son and also seemed put off by his comments.
“What’s upsetting to me,” I finally managed through that pain of freeze, “Is that I am a person with 15 years in recovery. Alcohol and opiates. And I could very well have been one of the junkies you’re talking about.”
Everyone seemed embarrassed and tried shifting the conversation to congratulating me on my recovery and how “well I had done.”
I’m just glad I had the chance to start somewhere.
I never needed Narcan or professional assistance to come out of an overdose or withdrawal, but I was getting close to the point where I could have. And many people in my network of recovery today, including sponsees who are working to make a difference in the world, required professional assistance for their lives to be saved. Yes, some of them had to go through the system of care multiple times before they got it. And I’m so glad they did. Because many parts of the medical and care system (however flawed they may be) did not give up on them, they eventually learned not to give up on themselves. A person I interviewed for my dissertation research was pronounced dead on arrival twice during overdoses, and would go through twenty-six rounds of professional treatment. And she eventually got access to the proper trauma-focused treatment that she required, later going on to make a big difference in her community.
Every day I get to see what happens when we don’t give up on people. Many people who work for me or with me are in long-term recovery. As a professional serving people at all levels of recovery from addiction and mental illness, I am privileged to behold miracles and know that recovery is possible. I know that it can be frustrating—for as many recovery stories as I witness, I see just as many people struggling to get it. And I’ve known way too many people who have died far too young. If you are a first responder, work in the hospitals, or in criminal justice, seeing the consequences of addiction play out in full living color, I realize that you may be jaded. It’s not easy trying to deal with people who are in the grips of it. I invite any of you to come and hang out with people like me some time. See what happens farther down the road when people get well.
I also recognize that an addict or alcoholic may have caused great pain in your life and this can be a hardening experience. I am the first to admit the damage that we can cause in the lives of others around us, and I realize that no apology can ever begin to heal those wounds. For those of us who make it through, we do our best to make amends through changed behavior. And please realize that even those of us in recovery have been impacted by the consequences of others’ addictions. I’ve been married to two people in active addiction. The son of my recovery sponsor was killed by a drunk driver. And although there has been pain to wade through, we’ve both chosen to be part of the solution, which first and foremost means being present for people who need recovery.
There’s always a fear when we advocate for these compassionate approaches to recovery that such softness will only give people more excuses. So let me share the piece of direction that changed my life which, I believe, embraces the delicate balance between validating and challenging people. When Janet, my first recovery sponsor, heard the story of my life and the progression of my disease she said, “Jamie, after everything you’ve been through, it’s no wonder you became addicted. What are you going to do about it now?”
People only respond to challenge and direction when they have first been validated and humanized. It’s not the other way around. Shame fuels the progression of addiction, and the comments and jokes on social media—no matter how innocuous they seem to you—are part of the problem. Intoning the wisdom of Anais Nin, shame is the lie that someone told you about yourself. For most of us, that starts with unhealed trauma and escalates by contact with others who would have us believe the lie. We say in the treatment field that guilt is when you feel bad about the things that you do, and shame is when you believe that you are those bad things. Shame teaches that those messages of defectiveness define you.
I’m grateful that I hung around long enough to learn the difference. And I’m even more grateful that I met people along the way who helped me to uncover a deeper truth about who I really am. For as much professional therapy as I’ve received and as much time as I spend growing in my spiritual practice, I am further grateful that I can still acknowledge my vulnerability. I am only human. If I stop taking care of myself, the chance is very real that I could be in the back of an ambulance, even after seventeen years in recovery, for reasons connected to my addiction and mental health.
To the people that will inevitably need revived from an overdose somewhere in the world today, I send you my love, my empathy, and if you want them, my prayers.
We are not separate.
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