PRYOR — Channis Whiteman knows something about the trouble that alcohol can cause.
Whiteman, who is a member of the Pryor community, talked about his battle with alcoholism Wednesday morning in the gymnasium at Plenty Coups High School. His audience included students of all ages, teachers, administrators and community members.
Whiteman was one of several people who spoke at the event, “Strong Spirits Empowerment Wellness Walk,” sponsored by the Indian Health Service Domestic Violence Task Force.
Whiteman said drinking made life difficult for him, his wife and his family. It took his children, including his then baby daughter, to turn him around, he said.
“I looked at my little baby and asked myself, ‘Was she going to grow up with a drunk dad for all the other kids to make fun of her?’” Whiteman said, his voice choking with emotion. “That day I saved myself. I quit drinking for my kids.”
The past seven or eight years, the task force has sponsored family fun nights in each of the communities on the Crow Reservation. This year, with the spate of violent deaths in Lodge Grass and Pryor, the task force decided to take a different track.
They organized the walk and talk, first in Lodge Grass in December and then in Pryor, task force coordinator Deborah Russell said before the start of the event.
“We wanted to help the communities re-establish hope and faith and resiliency so that they can take pride in who they are and let the children know that they have a choice against violence,” Russell said.
The task force plans to take the event to Crow Agency next.
The morning started with a smudging ceremony led by Pryor elder and dance chief Heywood Big Day Sr. After he circled the gym, brushing smoke toward the audience with an eagle feather, he did the same for Pryor Schools Superintendent Dan McGee, then bowed his head and prayed.
“You are like a chief around here,” Big Day told McGee.
After the Arrow Creek drum group played a flag song, the students, in T-shirts bearing the name of the walk, filed outside to walk twice around the snowy parking lot. They were led by a trio of Crow war veterans, including Richard Little Light, who carried an American flag.
Before the march began, task force member Curtis Brien reminded the students that the walk was to promote education about domestic violence and its terrible consequences.
“We want to bring this education to students so they can share with other students and their parents and take this message throughout the reservation, and hopefully we’ll put a stop to this kind of violence,” Brien said. “There’s no reason for it.”
Back inside the gym, Crow tribal secretary Scott Russell asked the students a series of questions. He asked them if the knew what clan they belonged to.
They he asked if any of them prayed. Russell challenged them to pray every day.
“You’ve got to thank God that he made you a Crow Indian,” he said. “You’ve got to thank God that you’re alive. You’ve got to thank God for all you have. It’s a whole new year, and it’s good to pay homage to our Creator for all his gifts.”
Russell then asked for a show of hands of how many students know how to speak the Crow language. A minority of hands went up.
He told the students that it’s the duty of their parents to teach them Crow “because that’s how we keep our language alive.”
Russell told the students he was at the march especially to talk to talk to them about respect.
“Respect one another, protect one another, help each other out,” he said. “Alcohol and drugs are not the answer to the good life. This past fall we lost too many tribal members to alcohol and drugs. That’s a bad thing.”
The students clapped loudly and cheered when Russell asked if the Plenty Coups Warriors basketball team would make it to the state playoffs this year. He encouraged his audience to be equally excited about who they are.
Russell presented the school with a Pendleton blanket emblazoned with the tribe’s emblem.
“I want you to be proud of who you are,” Russell said. “If you look at that emblem, that’s your identity. That’s who you are. It’s says we’re the Apsaalooke.”
A blanket also was presented to the family of Carol Whiteman, whose daughter Quindy is a member of the task force, and who worked with people for many years and served as a hospital chaplain.
After that, Channis Whiteman, her brother, talked about how he overcame his problems with alcohol, and then, with the help of his family, he went on to get a college degree. He also shared another accomplishment.
“I’m proud to say next month I’ll be sober for 22 years,” he said, to loud applause.
Whiteman encouraged the students that if they know anyone who is an abusive drinker, to seek help from members of the task force or from others in the community who can help them.”
“If there’s one that you love that’s abusing alcohol, there’s help,” he said.