A Girl's Anger Rouses Her Kinfolk from An Alcoholic Daze

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

In 1971 the remote, windswept town of Alkali Lake, British Columbia was a study in desperation. Dominated by unkempt prefab houses and sagging log cabins, its landscape was littered with abandoned cars, garbage and broken wine bottles. The town, home to 200-odd members of the Shuswap Indian tribe, was beset by brutality: Murders, rapes and brawls were common, and scores of its ragged children had been sexually abused, according to Alkali Lake officials. Outsiders called the town "Alcohol Lake," and any visitor could see why: At noon, adults staggered down the hard-packed dirt roads in a booze-fueled stupor.

But in Alkali Lake today, gone are the junked cars, the filth and the torpor. Modest businesses blossom, and once-decrepit homes have been neatly furnished and fitted with indoor plumbing. Children are clean and well fed; adults are sober. And Indians from across North America are making pilgrimages to hear how the Shuswaps beat the scourge that affects some 80 percent of Indian males.

It was a Friday afternoon in July, and Phyllis and Andy Chelsea were planning an early start on their weekend drinking. Before they settled in, Phyllis stopped at her mother's house to pick up her 7-year-old daughter. Ivy—who had often seen her father in a drunken rage beat her mother—refused to leave. "You and Daddy drink too much," she told Phyllis.

The shock of her daughter's rejection convinced Phyllis, now 43, that she must turn her life around. "Abstinence was much less painful for me than having my daughter say she didn't want to be with us," she says. Phyllis gave up drinking that day, and she never wavered. Her husband found it more difficult: "It was hard being sober when I saw all my friends drinking and having fun," says Andy, now 44. Even after seeking help from an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor, Chelsea fell off the wagon two or three times before conquering the bottle.

And while all but about 12 villagers would eventually follow the Chelseas' example, the road was incredibly difficult at first. When his own boozy fog lifted, Andy realized that alcohol was laying waste to the town. "I started looking at hungry kids in dirty clothes, and I knew it was because their parents were out on binges," he says. "Alcoholism was getting worse all the time, and I thought we should do something."

It was a message most of the Shuswaps did not want to hear: "If we saw the Chelseas walking down the street, we'd duck into a building," says Lena Paul, 29. "We felt guilty that we were still drinking and they weren't."

But the Shuswaps elected Andy as chief in 1972. Alkali Lake was a dying town, and Chelsea took drastic measures. He prevailed on the police to arrest the bootleggers who peddled cheap wine, whiskey and beer on the reservation. He initiated a program whereby, instead of relief checks, heavy drinkers were given vouchers that stores would redeem for anything but alcohol. And he encouraged the Shuswaps to become less dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose paternalism, he felt, reinforced their sense of powerlessness.

For his trouble, he became a controversial figure: "They said I was trying to change a way of life," recalls Chelsea. Still, the townsfolk respected his stand and continued to elect him chief for the next five years. One by one, band members began going to treatment centers. "When we felt like having a drink, a few of us would get together and stay up the whole night talking," says high school principal Fred Johnson, 25. "We learned to hang on to each other during the hard times." The Shuswaps who resisted received no mercy from Andy. "He explored different ways to get people to come around," Johnson says. "If a person was beating his wife, he'd say, 'Either you go to treatment now or we'll have you arrested.' "

Those who agreed to enter treatment centers would return to a home remodeled by Chelsea and his friends. "We wanted them to have a new environment to go along with their new outlook on life," he says. By 1979 about 60 percent of the band had shaken off alcoholism—a statistic unheard of for Indian reserves, where the leading causes of death are alcohol related. To reinforce their sobriety, the Chelseas persuaded the town to examine its own heritage. Like many groups, they had lost touch with Native traditions. When a medicine man from a nearby group came to teach the Shuswap dances and spiritual rites, it was the beginning of another rebirth. "I had to look at myself as a human being and how I fit into the world," says Johnson, who initiated an ambitious Native language program for his students.

Fifteen years after Ivy Chelsea's rebuff stunned her mother into sobriety, fewer than 12 drinkers remain among the town's growing population of 430. After years of complete depression, the town is on its way toward economic recovery: In Alkali Lake proper, a small food store and snack stand occupy the ground floor of a once-abandoned building. Upstairs is the office where townspeople administer the band's affairs (a task that once fell to the Canadian government). Down the road is a small timber business, and nearby are newly cultivated fields and a hog business that employs six people.

Eager to spread the message, the Shuswaps last year produced The Honour of All, a documentary that has been shown in hundreds of Native towns. Band members have traveled the continent to support groups whose battle is just beginning. "This is perhaps one of the most important movements in the Indian community in the last 20 or 30 years," says Professor R. Dale Walker, a University of Washington psychiatrist who has followed Alkali Lake's revival. "These people took risks and trusted each other."

"The last 10 years have been spent trying to heal ourselves," says band member Johnson. "It's hard, and sometimes I still cry when I think about how we were. But every day we get stronger."

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