Four years ago I started to produce a feature documentary inspired by a meeting with Sheila Raye Charles the daughter of the legendary singer. She had completely transformed her life from addiction and trauma to a life of meaning and purpose by turning her life and will over to the power of God. She was running a prison ministry and creating a way out of no way. Something about Sheila Raye got to me and it was love at first sight for her message. Love of the message of transformation has sustained me through these last four years. 2020 being the most difficult of the others as I could no longer just gather my equipment and schedule a flight or jump in the Jeep and show up at any of the locations where I'd established community and connections that allowed me to expand the story. The single purpose film that I had committed to turned into five separate films. One of the roads to recovery that I'd been exploring was in Western Washington and involved Native Americans who were thriving in recovery by using traditional practices as described in the book The Red Road to Wellbriety by White Bison Press.
My own take on this topic was initiated when I was invited to film at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center by a therapist and Squaxin elder Stephanie Thompson. I knew what an honor this was but having started this in early 2017 I had no idea how long I would be on this road with Stephanie. The program she was working included the standard therapy sessions but also integrated making a drum. This helped the newly recovery gain back some manual dexterity as well as give them something to do with all their new found hours that would not be needed for drug seeking behaviors. All clients were not initially excited about being in treatment but as they noticed others finding serenity in chanting and praying in their native language, participating in recovery circles, going to the sweat lodge people would find a sense of their self that not only allowed them to examine their lives but uncover historic trauma that had been passed down from generation to generation. Dealing with racism, grief and loss are important factors in coming to terms with ones own life and then taking responsibility for that heavy load by living a life of meaning and purpose.
Over the years of the people I interviewed and interacted with, told me how the songs and the sound of the drums were able to awaken something deep inside of them and reminded them of their grandparents who though had passed on were very present to them. Some expressed a fear that something was wrong with them when they cried for the first time in years when exposed to their ancestral traditions. With the assurance of attentive counselors they were guided to see this as a spiritual path that was opening up for them. The opportunity to express vulnerablity in a safe environment is critical to transformation. Within the context of a sacred space and that they was emotional secure the clients found the courage to be vulnerable. This allowed them to look at themselves and contemplate forgiveness, most especially self forgiveness. This is more than a get out of jail free pass but includes a dedication to being part of something bigger than oneself.
This past year is a year that none of us will be able to easily forget. Within the context of social distancing I was able to spend months and months of editing this story so I could tell the convincing and humble tale of personal and community transformations. This was a personal journey for me as a filmmaker too as many people shared their deepest losses and unashamedly wept bitter tears. I wanted to stand by them in documenting their testimonies of transformational healing and as I continued month after month I realized that the best way to title this was Journeys on the Red Road.
This premise of the Red Road seemed to be the key to the unifying theme that individuals need to see their way forward but in a universal way of what all people Native or non Native look for in recovery, something bigger than themselves. This in fact is the invitation for everyone who is in recovery to be part of the healing generation. In the case of Native Americans the goal of being part of the healing generation also includes doing this to demonstrate to the ancestors that they are still loved and respected and that they didn't die in vain. Healing ones own spirit and coming home to connection and community is what this is about and to do this is to evoke the recovery wheel which is to work on your own recovery and at the same time think about others.
The Salish People of the Pacific Northwest have lived on these shores for 10,000 years. Since 1989 they have had an annual canoe journey where different canoe families paddle from village to village. Being in a canoe family takes an incredible amount of dedication. It requires emotional, physical and spiritual strength. It also requires that people in the canoe family be drug and alcohol free. For many people coming into recovery this journey is a deep spiritual commitment. Traveling on the ancestral highway where the anecestors paddled is not and easy trip. The physical demands and the emotional stamina required over two weeks and hundreds of miles of paddling, protocols, ceremonies, chanting dancing, and feasting is a life affirming commitment. One participant tearfully describe the journey to me by telling me that to her every paddle stroke was a prayer. Centering ones life on taking that deep breath of commitment to and trust in the Creator is a transformational experience.
2020 was a year without the type of community and connection that we all long for. The Canoe Journey was of course cancelled- who knows better than Native Americans about the decimation of communities through unknown viruses. The idea of being on the inner journey with the sky above, the snow capped mountain ranges is the distance, and connection to community and sobriety sounds miraculous because it is. I was able to stay on course and bring this project home due to the support of tribal members who shared their stories with me. One member of a canoe family carved his first spruce paddle used for steering these magnificent canoes. This he gave to me and I do believe that this got me through my own journey. Now my goal is to share the wonders of a spirit infused world.
Watch the Journeys on the Red Road” Documentary Trailer: