How “the message” penetrated to a desperate situation
even the Mounties couldn’t handle
An Indian Named “Tall Man”
by Richard H. Whittenore
State of Maine Division of Alcoholic Rehabilitation
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., November 1962
Three years ago a government law enforcement official in Ottawa, Canada wrote a letter to the Canadian Mounted Police, Provisional Headquarters in New Brunswick, requesting an explanation concerning the sudden decrease in Indian arrests for intoxication within the Maliseet Reserve in that immediate area. The Provincial Officer in charge reported that many of his worst offenders had joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group on the Reserve. This was the truth and the only explanation he could offer.
The Maliseet (or Malecite) Indian settled in Tobique Point on the St. John River as late as 1755. They were a part of the Abenaki (or Abenaque) Nation closely related to the Tarratines in Maine who in 1669 began to break up into smaller tribes and moved eastward after a series of wars with the Mohawks.
Since the white explorers and trappers brought rum to the Indians in the early to Mid-Seventeenth Century, the use of alcohol has presented new and ever-increasing problems to this society. When considering the events to follow, it should not seem strange or unusual that the Indian would turn as a companion to the use of alcohol. Is not liquor a companion for those filled with bitterness after being robbed, conquered, suppressed and confined, while at the same time being Christianized and civilized by those who have hurt them?
Down through the years, poverty and sickness have weakened the spirit and thinned out the ranks of the various Tarratine Tribes in Maine and New Brunswick. The shame of a once-proud race being forced to accept meager charity has been hard to accept. They ask themselves “Is this what Christianity and civilization has to offer a peaceful tribe who has lived comfortably off the land?”
It takes several generations to change the customs, traditions, and culture of an ethnic group. In 1755 the Indian Brave was a protector, hunter, and warrior. The squaw carried the water, tanned hides, and made baskets. The brave had no conception of what it meant to work for wages. A brave who worked was a “squaw.” The white man came, conquered, and confined the Indian. With rum, gold, and deceit, he tried to get the brave to work. Here we have conflict, shame, poverty, and hatred. What a breeding ground for alcoholism! And this has been the situation for four generations. Under similar pressures and forced changes, groups in any race no doubt would look for relief from their misery. They would reach for the nearest and easiest temporary or permanent escape.
Tall Man (for anonymity), a full-blooded member of the Maliseet Tribe, 68 years of age, married with a grown family, heard about Alcoholics Anonymous through one of his sons who was working in Connecticut. Tall Man for many years had caused much trouble for his family, his tribe, and the law enforcement officers in the area because of his “excessive drinking.” Here is a brief outline of Tall Man’s story and how AA came to the Reserve.
“I first heard of AA six years ago through my son who became a member in Connecticut. Before my first meeting, I thought drinking was a daily necessity. Though I had often heard of AA, I felt it was not for me although I could see others needed it. At my first meeting, I knew there was something for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time but I knew I had a chance. Listening to the speakers, and along with the fellowship of AA, I had no feeling of inferiority. I was accepted from the start as a sick man, and all the members of the group were there to help me stay sober if I accepted the fact of being an alcoholic.
“My first contact with AA was at the Fort Fairfield Group in Maine, just a few miles from the New Brunswick border. After being sober for six months in AA, I began to understand that this program could benefit many on my Reserve. So with the help of the AA groups in Maine and New Brunswick (along-the-border groups), an open meeting was held on the Reserve on May 3, 1958. The first reaction to AA coming to the Reserve was one of confusion, but many became members from the first meeting. It was no problem to get a group started on the Reserve, but I had to have help from the other groups to get AA across to many. Our meetings are run exactly the same as they are on the outside. We found we did not need any special presentation. I am happy to stat that in 1958 we started eighteen members and we now have sixty.
“Every year I make trips to the different Reserves in Canada. A group has been started in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, and a trip to Eskasoni was made by another member of our group in October 1960. I plan to keep on spreading the AA message which I must do in order to keep sober myself. I will go anywhere when I can.
“The general standard of living on the Maliseet Reserve has definitely been raised — Improvements in homes, encouragement in education for our children, and an increase in church attendance, not to mention many other personal standards which go with a clear and sober mind. After listening to Bill W., the co-founder of AA, and what he went through to get started, his struggles, failures and heartaches, and how this program has worked for so many since the founding, I know that if I work hard and if other members feel as I do, this disease (which I am sure it is) can be arrested for many — not cured, but arrested.”
AA has and will bring the Indians and white man closer together in the understanding of one another’s problems, raise the standard of living, be an incentive for the Indian family, and improve the general appearance of the Reservation. This will give the Indians a common meeting ground outside the church and tribal meeting hall. The sober Indian will once again walk with dignity and pursue his real purpose in life.
As Tall Man once said to the AA group in Maliseet, “The white man does not look down on you because you are Indian. He looks down on you as he would anyone who is drunk, dirty, and lazy.
Perhaps the use of alcohol, in the last analysis, help preserve a race through its reconversion period, from so-called “heathens and savages” to “civilized Christians.” Regarding this point, I think we can all do a lot of souls searching.
First Drunk: Why are you snapping your fingers?
Second Drunk: To keep the elephants away.
First Drunk: I don’t see any elephants.
Second Drunk: See, it works.
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., November 1962
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