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Skye’s Horizons – Revisited
Janurary 13, 2016

The First National Native American Sobriety Workshop
By Harriett Skye (Standing Rock) UTTC Vice President Emeritus

In my writing about “Tiny Bud” Jamerson many memories came flooding back of a man who did so much for so many in his life on this earth. He was always thinking about others and how he could make things better for all of us, and I believe that’s why he and my father were friends.

My father worked daily with tribal members and knew what life was like on the reservation in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a BIA land officer, he saw the growing threat of land fractionation and what it meant to a family when there was a death without a will. As a little girl, I would go with him when he met and talked with people; I sat in the car as he made the wills. I walked with him as he looked for boundary and marker-stakes out on the land, and sat with him as he negotiated leases with lessee and lesser.


Both he and Tiny Bud had a quality of unselfishness that led them to pursue vital concerns that would benefit the People. Education was certainly among them but above all else, in my father’s case, was sobriety.

In 1969 the two of them wrote a proposal to the National Institute of Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse to convene a conference about sobriety for American Indians. Their $25,000 grant was funded and administered through the Association on American Indian Affairs, headquartered in New York City. That’s how the first “National Indian Workshop on Alcohol and Drug Abuse” came into being.


A list of good People from all over joined-in to serve on a steering committee to organize and conduct the event. Members included Dr. Beatrice Medicine, Standing Rock; Bert Eder, Fort Peck; Mark Small, Northern Cheyenne; Dennis Banks, Ojibway; Patricia Locke, Red Lake/Standing Rock; Esther Naghanub, White Earth Ojibway; Harry Bilagody, Navajo; and me Harriett Skye.

As the planning evolved, committee members often returned to the idea of emphasizing the Native perspective. On any subject, both good and bad, many things had been written about Native People but very little of it was from us, from our point-of-view. It was clear also that Native voices had long been missing from the sobriety movement. With that in mind, the committee took a bold and decisive policy step. The only people to be heard at this conference would be Native People.

After two meetings with Tiny Bud and other tribal leaders, it was decided to hold the workshop in Denver, Colorado on January 29-31, 1970. The steering committee appointed me as the coordinator and, on November 1, 1969, I moved to Denver with my daughter. Letters went out to reservation and urban organizations listing the agenda and inviting them to attend. We blocked 300 rooms at the New Albany Hotel and arranged for the Lakota Holy Man, Fools Crow, to be our spiritual advisor.

As January 29 approached, it was obvious to me that registration would exceed the 200-to-300 we initially expected. Pre-registration soared to over 700. The director of Indian Health sent all of his service unit directors. A doctor from Los Angeles planned to attend with several Native People who he said were alcoholics and had been taught to become social drinkers. He wanted to tell about his great success but I informed him of our policy to hear from Native voices only. Others registered, including the American Indian Movement, under the auspices of Dennis Banks, and several administrators from the Inglewood, Colorado Federal facility.

Ultimately, well over 1,200 people attended the conference. They came from tribes, urban organizations and the BIA. And they listened. During talks and discussions, patterns of Native sobriety began to emerge and issues were identified.

Bill IM from Sisseton/Wahpeton graciously accepted the role of keynote speaker and told an incredible story. His vision brilliantly set a tone for the coming years in how tribes and Indian organizations would relate to the challenges of alcohol and drugs.

The insight, honesty, and most of all, the concern of participants was awe-inspiring. Particularly dramatic were the stories after the sessions, at our dinner tables, and at coffee breaks. And all the while, Fools Crow sat among us readily available with his blessings.


When the conference ended, the entire steering committee flew to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress. We pushed for more money because we learned at the conference about the desperate need for more facilities and people in the field of alcohol and drug counseling. Detox centers were needed in urban areas and on reservations, managed and staffed by sober Native people with the proper funding.

From there we went about spreading the word and gaining tribal support and the Northwest tribes were first. Earl Old Person, Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe, gave his unquestioned endorsement at meeting in Spokane, Washington.

The concerns addressed, the battles fought, and the problem-solving of 50 years ago might sound “old-school” as we enter 2016, particularly since we are confronted with new challenges like meth, heroin and other mind-altering drugs. But it’s instructive to acknowledge that the common thread in our Native society is the spoken word. With that, in its old and new forms, all kinds of planning, progress and success is possible for committed and unselfish People.

Harriett Skye

Retired educator Harriett Skye founded and directed the United Tribes Office of Public Information; edited “United Tribes News” and wrote the column: “Skye’s Horizons.” She also served as the college’s Vice President of Intertribal Programs. Her father, Douglas Skye, was Standing Rock Chairman, 1969-70. Theodore “Tiny Bud” Jamerson was Standing Rock Chairman 1958-59. He organized the United Tribes of North Dakota Development Corporation and was the leading founder of United Tribes Employment Training Center, now United Tribes Technical College.

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