Martin High Bear on Addictions

Lesson 1 – The Orphan: The Loss of Traditional Ways


Recognize that ceremony and ritual are ways to acknowledge and sustain positive life changes.


Understand the transforming power of a “rite of passage” and apply this to recovery from addiction.

The Orphan

The orphan describes the feeling of being alone and of being in a place that causes you to feel isolated from others; feeling singly challenged and even feeling overwhelmed at times by the work facing you.

Historical Trauma

Listen to the interview with medicine man, Martin High Bear.  They speak of the massacre at Wounded Knee and the subsequent loss of many tribal traditions and sacred ceremonies.

“The Lakota were forced to give up their own traditional ways of worship and change this religion to Christianity.”

The old ways of life and custom were outlawed by the government and Native people were no longer free to conduct ceremonies such as the Sun Dance or to practice purification rites in the sweat lodge.

“Ceremonies were outlawed for almost a century.”

Being prevented from practicing traditional rites is symbolic of the orphan’s plight.  The Orphan is separated from familial ways and denied cultural meaning and identity.  Cultural loss if often accompanied by loss of vision and purpose.  It becomes harder to find avenues for self-expression, and apathy takes the place of personal prerogative.

Self Preservation

“Religious practices of the American Indian are an integral part of their culture, tradition, and heritage, such as practices forming the bases of Indian identity and value system.”

Public Law 95-341

Despite the government’s attempts to ban for all time sacred spiritual practices, after many years, these restrictive policies were repealed.  In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to restore access to sacred sites, the use of sacred objects (e.g., eagle feathers and bones) and participation in traditional ceremonies.  High Bear believed the people needed to resurrect the old ways and recreate a sense of belonging to an ancestral family.

High Bear laments the loss of knowledge about traditional ways.  He indicates that the memories and stories of tribal elders were lost through inattention and absorption in a different style of living.

“Living in this fast life—fast cars, beer joints, liquor stores—all these caused of lot of them to go wrong.”

High Bear places the onus on a younger generation to restore the spiritual and ceremonial legacy of the ancestors.

“They need to relearn the spiritual ways of the ancestors”…”sometimes that meant pulling them off the streets so they could sober up and rebuild their lives.”

Rites of Passage

Rites and ceremonies are integral to a sense of belonging to a family, a social group, community, and a nation.  Rites and customs confer meaning and purpose to one’s life and mark the transitions from one level to the next—such as moving from adolescence to adulthood.

Think of important rites and customs you celebrate as a family member or as a member of a church or other organization.  Many of these ceremonies have significance in terms of a person’s sense of well-being, sense of renewal, or expression of honor or esteem.

Some rites of passage familiar to many of us include:

  • A wedding
  • Baptism or confirmation
  • A coming of age ritual, like bar or bat mitzvah
  • A wake to watch over and honor the dead; a funeral
  • Graduation

A rite of passage is a way to recognize an important change in a person’s life. It generally separates a person from his old status and incorporates him into a new one.  The person is symbolically, or perhaps even literally, transformed as he “passes through” on to a new stage.

Stage 1:  Separation:  Like the Orphan, the person is separated from familiar environments/habits and is thrust into another sphere requiring different adaptations.

Stage 2:  Transition:  The transition phase is the time when people learn and grow in preparation for a different lifestyle—a time of renewal.

Stage 3:  Incorporation:  At this stage the person is fully accepted into a new role.

Think of ways the Rite of Passage paradigm could be applied to a person suffering from serious addiction (like alcoholism, gambling, or drug abuse).  As example, what do you see happening to the person in each of the three stages?

Think about the following:

  • What is it like to live with an addiction?
  • What would it take to escape this life?
  • What would life be like if one was no longer addicted?

Here are some general questions to help you focus on transformations and the recovery process.

  • When you first started the addictive behavior, how did it make you feel?  What were your surroundings? (e.g., bar, social club, sporting event).
  • What are you “missing” in life because of your addiction?
  • What would motivate you to “kick” the habit?  What changes in your outlook are required.
  • What new behaviors do you need to learn to stay free of addiction?
  • How will your life be different when you are addiction free?


If you were planning to perform a ceremony for a recovered addict, what would this ceremony or ritual consist of?  In what ways would you acknowledge transformation and the successful change of status.