By the time Robert Hayward, Winnebago, decided to write about his journey to redemption, he had been through hell. His résumé read like a psych report—drug dealer, addict and full-blown alcoholic. After 26 years of self-destruction he found that his physical health had evaporated, his mind had melted, and his relationships with his parents, wife and three kids were on a fast track to nowhere.
But he emerged, intact, to write The Thirteenth Step: One Man’s Odyssey of Recovery (Native Son Publishers, Inc., 2011).
What makes this revelatory book so compelling is Hayward’s honesty and heartfelt sincerity, coupled with his admission of failure and his decision to turn to tribal wisdom to heal. It is an intriguing insight into the Native American Church’s peyote cleansing rituals, yet a cautionary tale to all substance abusers. Though the church’s practice of using peyote as a sacrament in its ceremonies is legal for tribal members (under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994), it is still controversial and has been fraught with negative connotations since the 1960s, when it was used experimentally by the counterculture.
To this day there are very few members permitted to conduct this sacred religious ritual, and they are referred to as roadmen. During the lengthy, cabalistic event, Hayward experienced powerful revelations. Eventually, with the trust and guidance of the church’s leaders, he was granted permission to reveal the ceremony to the world and give his profoundly personal account.
Hayward Awakes: An Interview
Indian Country Today Media Network was intrigued by Robert Hayward’s tale of redemption from addiction and delved a little deeper with the author.
You seem to have emerged from a nightmare of alcoholism and drug addiction like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. What have been the rewards?
I started using at the age of 14, so for 26 years I was in a daze. Yet immediately after I walked out of that tipi, my life was clear. Since then I have been alive. Now I have clarity, plus I developed compassion for people who have the same problem. I wanted to help, and that’s why I became a counselor. It really reinforced my need to prevent other people from falling into the same trap.
How did you manage to escape relatively unscathed after 26 years of addiction?
I was never arrested because I was selling to the cops and knew when busts were going down. But there was always danger. And the fact that I’m alive is amazing since I’ve been to more than 200 funerals over the years, and most were related to alcohol or drugs. Most of the people I grew up with are either dead or in jail, or still on drugs or alcohol.
How do you reach young people or addicts without the use of peyote in a healing ceremony?
Basically alcohol addiction is universally a spiritual problem, and it only has a spiritual solution. If you look at the 12-step program, the third step is the key. I tell people that if you can’t take the first two steps of the program, don’t waste your time with the rest of the steps. You have to turn your will and your life over to god as you understand him—you have to have a higher power. How you go about that is personal.
I’ll take a group of young people, and we’ll talk in a circle, and it’s a type of spirituality. It has a calming effect. I’ll put the cedar in the fire and bless them with the feathers, and we talk using the same rules as the tipi. They open up and talk, as opposed to sitting in a treatment room where they tell you, “You have 45 minutes to spill your guts.” Even a group of strangers will bond.
The key is to create a bond. We also pass around water to get the four elements going. Once you have shared a night together in a ceremony, you become a relative to everyone there—no longer separated by blood, but bonded by the spirit.
Can you talk about your interest in starting national treatment programs?
The model would be to have an area on a reservation with four tipis and to separate the sexes. We’d take the hard-core repeaters for the first night and run them through the ceremony—though it’s critical they go through chemical detox first. Then we would have a ceremony for everyone with members of the Native American Church in order to make a complete circle. What you do in a month in a treatment center, you can do in one night in a tipi. What we have in the Native American Church is a support system for Indian people because it becomes a lifestyle.
The spiritual aspect is important as well. I want to start a system that is positive for people—to talk about things that are better. There is a huge demand for that.
Can you talk about the importance of spiritual education from our elders?
What you can learn from elders is stuff you can’t get from books or anywhere else. Unfortunately, what you see now is that kids have no respect for elders anymore. And it’s sad. You miss the generational connection without that.
In tribal groups I talk about the concept of seven generations. Seven generations ago my ancestors were praying that I would be alive today, and that’s the only reason I am alive. Our duty is to pray for the next seven generations. We need to keep that continuous cycle so that we don’t just pray for today or tomorrow and live our life that way. There’s this revival about the seventh generation, and it’s in all kinds of prophecies that in this current generation young kids will rise up and have dreams and visions and start to bring back the old ways and revive the traditions. And I’m seeing that kids who are learning the songs and how to drum at 9 years old, and you can see the power coming out of them.
The best thing that I see happening is the young kids at the pow wows are starting to dress up again and dance and that’s where you see the connection with their elders who are trying to pass this on to the kids. The kids look up to them, and that’s where I see the hope.