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'We Have To Be Role Models': Native Americans Hold Sober New Year's Eve Powwow

Katie Peikes
Native Americans celebrated New Years Eve in Sioux City with Native dances, culture and food.

Native Americans gathered in Sioux City for New Year’s Eve Tuesday night to honor their heritage with music and dance, and set an example of living a healthy lifestyle. 
The community's powwow celebrated Native American culture, different styles of dancing, and food – all while completely sober. 

Clorice Denny of Sioux City hails from the Ho-Chunk, Omaha and Sioux tribes. She came to the celebration with her dad and her six-year-old son, Kendrick.

“I want him to look back and see something positive and make a tradition if it,” Denny said, about her son.

The sobriety powwow celebrated its sixth year Tuesday, as hundreds of people rang in 2020 in a local high school gymnasium. People enjoyed a community meal and danced in traditional Native American dress; some took interest in a few vendors selling jewelry, clothes and other Native paraphernalia. Seven years ago, when Jim Hallum of Nebraska Indian Community College realized there was a need for a traditional Native American powwow in Sioux City, he set out to start one.

“I’ve been in recovery for over 30 years,” Hallum said. “When I think about that, if we’d had things like this back then when I was younger, maybe it would’ve been different.”

Hallum, a member of the Santee Sioux Nation, wanted to make a difference for people in the more-than 29 tribes across the tristate area that includes parts of western Iowa, southeast South Dakota and northeast  Nebraska. He aspired to change the narrative of alcoholism in the Native American community, starting with New Year's Eve.

“Tonight is, traditionally for a lot of us, a time to get drunk or a time to get high,” Hallum said. “…We’re trying to prevent these things. I believe in prevention and to do anything we can to give them a different outlook on life.” 

Native Americans have made up the largest portion of arrests related to public intoxication in Sioux City for the last five-plus years. In 2015, there were roughly 600 arrests involving Native Americans. In 2018, the numbers dropped to less than 200. The overall number of public intoxication arrests across all demographics has dropped over time, but Native Americans have consistently made up close to 50 percent of them.

Local law enforcement attribute the drop in public intoxication arrests to using other alternatives to the Woodbury County Jail, such as bringing people to a local shelter to calm down.

Terry Medina, a tribal court probation officer and a member of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, said he hopes for the overall downward trend to continue, but he also points to how Native Americans across the country have higher suicide rates that stem from substance use and abuse. 

“All the negative categories that we can think of, Native Americans lead the country,” Medina said, “And I’m at a loss for words if I really step back and look at it because all these tribes have culture, language, tradition to fall back on.”

Medina said he uses traditional talking circles and ceremonies in sweat lodges sacred to the Native American community to help people heal from addiction and alcohol abuse.

“Every day, we wake up, we make choices,” he said. He added it’s important for the youth to live a healthy lifestyle without alcohol.

“I tell my children, ‘Your mother and I didn’t raise you to go out there, be disrespectful, be a drunk, smoking pot. We raised you to be respectful, do good things’,” Medina said. “Alcohol and drugs are a destroyer. It’s almost like an evil spirit, a demon.”

Jim Hallum from Nebraska Indian Community College recalled a bad experience with alcohol more than 30 years ago, where he woke up in jail after heavily drinking. He said his motivation to quit came from his daughter, who told him she didn’t like it when he drank.

“And I thought about it … if I kept walking that way, she’d be walking with me,” Hallum said. His two daughters and a grandchild were celebrating the new year at the powwow with him. “They’ve never used,” Hallum said.

“We have to be role models for the kids, for the people,” Hallum said.