SALT LAKE CITY ? Like many young men, he seemed to have the world at his feet. One of Nevada’s top high school athletes, he excelled at both basketball and football and dreamed of playing collegiate and professional sports. But in a split second, Arnold W. Thomas completely transformed his life and his future.
Despondent over his father’s suicide two years earlier, and wracked by alcoholism and drug-abuse, Thomas put a rifle under his chin at age 18 and tried to kill himself. He failed, but seriously damaged his face, leaving himself blind and, for two years, unable to speak. Yet Thomas, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, has bounced back to become a living lesson in perseverance.
Arnold Thomas had to start over from scratch.
“On top of losing my sight, I couldn’t talk ? I had to learn to speak again,” he told ICT recently. “I went to Salt Lake City to go to a school for the blind and, at 19 years old, I had to learn a new way of life, [with] independent skills ? basic things, like walking down the street, crossing streets, riding public transportation.”
Now, at age 31, Thomas travels throughout the United States and Canada, speaking to school and community groups, both Indian and non-Indian, about suicide and substance abuse. His theme is resiliency, the ability to bounce back from adversity; he compares his personal experiences and struggles to those of Indian country as a whole. He spoke at the Dancing the Path Wellness Conference, held March 4?6 at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y.
“Resiliency is intuitive and, to me, spiritual,” Thomas explained. “Native people for thousands of years have used the four basic elements to maintain balance and harmony ? By connecting with these elements through prayer, Native people have always been able to find inner peace no matter what type of trauma, tragedy or positive experience they go through. They’ve been able to take those experiences and find a silver lining and adapt to and find the beauty in whatever type of situation they are in and make the best of it.”
Seeking strength and balance, Thomas looks to the traditional ways of the Shoshone-Paiute people. A sun-dancer, he also participates in sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies, vision quests, and the Native American church.
“They’re very old, hundreds and thousands of years old,” Thomas said. “The songs and language incorporated in the ceremonies tie me and connect me to the past and help me to maintain that balance in my life. So, the ceremonies are there to help me maintain balance within my mind and among my emotions as well as in my physical body. I got away from it [traditional ceremonies] when I was in high school, but came back when I got older.”
Music has served Thomas as another means for spiritual release. He recorded a selection of songs entitled “Dosa Weehee, Sounds of the Great Basin.” The CD features Thomas singing traditional and original songs in the Shoshone-Paiute language, accompanied by hand drums, rattles, flutes and guitars. “Dosa weehee” is Shoshone for “white knife.” More information on the CD is available on the Internet at www.whitebuffaloknife.com.
In 1999, Thomas graduated from the University of Utah with a master’s degree in social work. He views his specialty, clinical therapy, as a way to help and inspire younger students; if he can overcome the considerable adversity he’s faced, then they can beat the obstacles in their paths as well.
“A lot of the young people I speak to come from broken homes, blended families, interracial families, or have parents who are abusive in every way we can imagine,” said Thomas. “I just let them know that it’s there, that they’ve got the ability to overcome and make a better life for themselves, but they’ve got to want to it. I got my degree in clinical therapy because I feel like a lot of Native people have that [same] ability; [I just try to] help them to find the positive qualities that are there.”
Despite his blindness, athletic competition remains a key emotional outlet for Thomas as well as a viable means to a college education for younger athletes. Once a star basketball player (he competed in a national foul-shooting contest in junior high and was pursed by collegiate recruiters in high school) Thomas belies the idea that a blind man cannot coach sports. With some help from a sighted assistant, he has coached youth basketball, stressing commitment and fundamentals from his players. He teaches defense, shooting and dribbling through a combination of demonstration and explanation.
“In basketball, playing defense, there’s a certain defensive stance I’m looking for,” Thomas explained. “I actually get out there and show them how to shuffle and how to have one hand higher than the other. I just kind of walk them through it, the spring in your feet, the technique, the follow through, dribbling with the right and left hands and passing. I help them to visualize” what they’re doing.
“I break it down and tell them that, like anything in life, you’ve got to have the basic fundamentals and then from there build on them,” he continued. “I guess the big thing I tell young people is that athletics are 90 percent mental and ten percent physical. The game’s won before you get out on the court.”
Although not currently coaching, Thomas carries the message over into his inspirational presentations, asking his listeners to visualize things with their eyes shut. “When I work with young people I have them close their eyes throughout my presentation and make reference to various situations in my life,” he said. “I run them through some visual images; if you can visualize things, there are a lot of things that can occur in a positive way. I was told by a blind person when I lost my sight that there are only two things that we can’t do as blind people. One is that you can’t drive a car and you can’t read print on your own. I’ve driven a car since I lost my sight and I have other methods through which my tasks are accomplished.”
Yet for all his strength in overcoming his personal adversities and setbacks, Thomas still deals with a very difficult subject, suicide. As a suicide survivor, and as one whose father and paternal grandfather both killed themselves, he can certainly provide considerable insight on the subject.
“Suicide is not just a native problem,” Thomas insisted. “Through my research in graduate school [I found that] for a while the state of Utah ranked third or fourth in the nation in adolescent suicides. Not just native people but across the board. And we asked the question ‘why?’ A lot of communities, whatever race they are, tend to sweep the issue of suicide under the carpet.” To get his audiences to open up, Thomas uses “the experience I’ve been through, as well as having it in my family, and having friends attempt suicide and other people succeed at it.” He also, perhaps surprisingly, uses humor.
“Humor is a big piece I use when I work with any population talking about suicide because it’s so sensitive in every culture,” Thomas said. “Using humor helps me to open up the door so the people can hear what I have to say. And I use it throughout my whole presentation. I have refined my technique so I can help whatever population I’m working with ? The manner in which I present all this information gets real powerful. It’s not just that, ‘Hey, I shot myself ? I was an alcoholic drug addict.’ It’s not about that. I incorporate my skills as a clinical therapist to help people to write about how they feel in a journal or diary, so they understand how to make a connection with their emotions and can feel comfortable talking about it.
“This is a big key in Native country ?? we were taught for so long ‘it’s not OK to express how you feel. It’s not OK to cry,'” he continued “As I work with more communities, I am finding out it’s not just a native issue, it’s a male issue. I was taught that a man is supposed to be tough and strong and not cry. I tell people ‘That’s a lie,’ because we’re humans. If we feel sad it’s OK to cry and if you want to talk about it, that’s OK. But don’t make a split-second decision when you’re angry or real emotional because you’re going to regret it.”
“The biggest thing in resiliency that I encourage in people is to have a dream, a vision, a long-term goal,” Thomas said. “A lot of people don’t have dreams. Sometimes when they got older, they think they’re too old and they don’t need to have a dream. And with young people, I ask them what their dream was when they were younger and the second part of that question is where are you in accomplishing that dream. Have a dream, have a long-term goal, have a vision. We all need it.”