Arnold W. Thomas, MSW, Chaplain, Motivational Speaker
By Dianna Troyer
For Arnold Thomas, his attempted suicide in 1988 was a gift instead of a tragic regret. In seeking his own death, he says he instead found new life. By losing his ability to see, he says he has gained invaluable insight, so he, in turn, can help others cope with emotional pain.
"When I was 18,
I tried to kill myself because
I was unable to express my
thoughts and feelings," says Arnold, an inspirational
speaker who travels throughout the United
States and Canada speaking at business and educational
workshops."It's a miracle
that I'm alive, "says Arnold, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute
Tribes, who grew up in
"I learned to
read Braille, to use a cane for
mobility, to cook, clean, vacuum and do
laundry," he says. "A counselor
told me the only thing I wouldn't be
able to do that a sighted person
can do is drive a car and read
printed material." Once
4 JANUARY 2008 RAFT RIVER
"Many years ago, my clan carried white stone knives and were known for their strong medicine," he e xplains. "Also, I am a clan member of the buffalo people. The two clans I originate from have been withinmy people for centuries. The name White Buffalo Knife has a strong, significant meaning for me."
The topics he
discusses include resiliency,
overcoming self-destructive behaviors,
grief and loss, the value of
education, stress and anger management,
substance abuse prevention, suicide
prevention and learning to
live with disabilities. "He's a role
model for the disabled," says his
sister, Claudia Thomas,
business office assistant at
Glenda Thomas, says she is proud of
"I say daily prayers to help me connect with the creator, which, in turn, helps me connect with the natural
water, fire and earth," he
says. "Being in balance with creation
helps bring peace." Besides praying
A role model of resiliency
© Indian Country Today March 21, 2002. All Rights ReservedSALT
Like many young men, he seemed to
have the world at his feet. One of
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, 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
riding public transportation."
Now, at age 31,
Thomas travels throughout the
as a whole. He spoke at the Dancing the Path Wellness Conference, held March
4?6 at the Turning Stone
"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."
served Thomas as another means for spiritual release. He recorded a selection of
songs entitled "Dosa Weehee, Sounds of 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
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
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."
Please visit the
Indian Country Today
website for more articles related to this topic.
A Vision in Darkness
In late June of 1988, I stuck a 30-30 rifle to my chin and pulled the trigger. My emotional anguish was great enough that I wanted to leave my lifelong
goals and visions and the people who cared about me behind. Had it all come to an end? When the bullet raced through my face, it shattered bones, veins
and severed muscles. There seemed no way in hell that I was going to live.
Why? This has been a common question asked of me by grandparents, parents, siblings and other individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide. In
some communities where I have worked, there has been suicidal ideations on a daily basis. Even more disheartening, suicides in our communities have extended
to a broader age range. Youth as young as 10-years-old as well as elders have been successful in taking their lives.
I have stood before Relatives throughout our land and have tried to answer the question, �Why?�. There are many reasons why our Relatives want to
kill themselves. For many of us, it�s the inability to express our mental and emotional pain deep down inside with others that leads to thoughts of suicide.
Some of us believe that no one cares about us, no one understands us or our current life struggles will never get any better. Often we loose hope and faith
and slip into a state of depression. Then it is easier to begin thinking that suicide is the correct answer-- a permanent solution for our temporary problems.
Our Indigenous, spiritual, traditional teachings tell us that life is a gift. Suicide is not historically part of our culture. Taking your life
is a selfish act. We are only given a certain amount of time to live this physical life. It is told that it�s wrong for a human being to cut their life
short by killing themselves. Some elders say, when an individual commits suicide, their spirit remains earthbound until the day they were originally intended
to die. It's our conscious choice to care or not to care and we as Original People of this land need to take a stronger and more compassionate stance against the issues causing suicides.
Our support as Relatives and friends is vital in decreasing the rate of suicide in our communities. Since 1988, I have been totally blind and have been living in a world of darkness. The support of my family and friends has been crucial in shaping the person I am today. This may sound ridiculous to some of you, but you never know when a smile, a hug, a pat on the back or words of compassion and encouragement like "I love you", "I care about you" or "you're special" will make a difference in someone's life. Often, just spending time with a friend or relative can be a valuable and precious gift to both
of you. Our ability to communicate in all it's various forms with each other is powerful.
After my suicide attempt, I made a choice to ask the Creator to show me which direction and path I should take. Then I had to trust what the Creator was showing me, which was very difficult. TRUST-- I had to get real with myself. First, I had to forgive myself for trying to take my life. Next, I had to ask forgiveness from the Creator for trying to cut my life short. Then and only then was I able to take the steps I needed to ask my family and friends to forgive me. I had to make amends with those individuals who are alive as well as those who have passed on. By making the effort to bring the heart and mind together, I have been able to witness healing. In the process of journaling, talking to my loved ones and using ceremonial tobacco, I have been able to let go of my grief and move forward. By integrating spiritual traditional teachings and western therapeutic modalities I've allowed myself to walk through the pain and find some harmony and balance.
A question I have asked communities throughout my travels is, "What is your vision ?". The dreams and goals you have for yourself, family, community and Nation are important visions to work toward. Although I can't see through my physical eyes, I still have a vision of decreasing the rates of suicide in our communities. Since 1990, I have been sharing my story with individuals, families and communities with the hope that they will gain faith, strength and the motivation to live life to its fullest with gratitude for what they have. By sharing our personal struggles and triumphs with each other my prayer is that we can unite as a resilient People. Let me share with you what I see... .
Using the Sweat Lodge Ceremony to treat Veterans with PTSD
Solace of heat
Traditional Native Amercan sweat ceremonies at a veterans' medical
center in Salt Lake City offer patients an alternative path to healing
By Jessica Ravitz
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:11/13/2006 04:37:07 PM MST
Editor's note: Reporter Jessica Ravitz participated in a sweat ceremony at Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City and shares a view from the inside. The names of veterans receiving substance abuse treatment have been changed in the story to protect their identities.
Native American men often returned home from battle haunted. The violent images of actions including their own left their spirits wounded. To mend that which had been broken, many tribes welcomed the warriors with the warmest of embraces. A sweat ceremony, a purification ritual, helped bring the men peace and make them whole.
Fast forward hundreds of years to
Shame and guilt, after all, can drive the most well-meaning of individuals to self-destruct.
"Oftentimes vets who have been in combat, their spirit is still overseas," says Arnold Thomas, the spiritual leader who conducts the twice-monthly and year-round ceremonies in the VA hospital's sweat lodge. We want to bring "his spirit back into his body and welcome him home again."
Tucked behind Building 4 on the sprawling VA hospital campus, beyond the metal gate featuring a medicine wheel and the word Purtkwahgahm (Ute Indian for "healing ground") sits the sweat lodge, established more than four years ago.
A handful of veterans, including alumni and others currently in the North Star substance abuse program, help prepare for the ceremony. They chop kindling, for several hours, to fuel the fire that'll heat more than 30 lava stones. Several men, including one Native American in a T-shirt featuring an eagle and the phrases, "Pure American" and "Live Free," stand by ready to assist in building the fire, setting up the altar and doling out prayers.
James, an Anglo veteran in recovery after a 30-year addiction to cocaine, says the treatment program and the sweat ceremonies have saved him.
"It's a spiritual cleansing," he says about the sweat, which lasts about four hours. "It purges my body of toxins. When I'm done, I feel high."
Sweat practices vary by tribe, among those that observe the ceremony, but today's consists of four rounds. With the use of rattles, drums, herbs thrown on the hot stones, chants and traditional song, the spiritual leader and participants pray for others, not themselves. The first round is for the unborn and infants, the second young people, the third adults and the fourth the elderly and those who have "gone before us," Thomas explains.
"Our ceremonial rites are about giving... We're taught not to pray for ourselves," says the spiritual leader, who also invites participants to include prayers of gratitude and healing.
The actual sweat lodge, a small dome-like structure, is modeled in the Plains Indian tradition, framed in willow branches tied to replicate a buffalo's body (a long veterbrae and rib cage). It's heavily draped with thick military-green woolen blankets and a canvas tarp, all meant to hold in the heat and moisture while keeping the inside pitch black. The lodge symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth, and ceremony participants emerge from the experience reborn.
Thomas crawls through the sweat lodge door, or flap, which faces east. He's making final preparations, clearing out the pit inside, blessing it with tobacco and feeling his way as he sets up the altar that stands between the lodge and fire.
The Shoshone-Paiute, now of
Eventually Thomas, 36, turned to tribal traditions to learn about forgiveness and deal with his pain, anger and guilt. He found healing and balance, relying on elders who taught him to help others. Along the way he earned a master's degree in social work from the
On this day, a group of men and one woman stand beneath an overcast sky as the ceremonial fire roars. Dan, an Anglo first-timer snug in his West Coast Choppers sweatshirt, looks for last-minute tips.
"I heard if it gets too hot, I should meditate, right?" he says.
"Be in your prayers, because then you're in your spirit. And your spirit doesn't know heat, fatigue or thirst," advises Rod Betonney, a Navajo who's worked in the drug and alcohol field for 20 years and is an addiction therapist at Eagle's Nest, the residential component of the VA's treatment program.
Betonney has laid the groundwork, giving participants a general understanding of the sweat, before the spiritual leader takes over.
From wooden boxes and ornate wrapped bags, Thomas pulls out the materials to create the altar, muttering prayers in Shoshone. A staff, the wood-burnings completed by a
Participants circle the fire, sprinkling tobacco and their own prayers on the flames. A tin can holding burning embers and cedar is carried around, the smoke directed toward each person with the waving of feathers. The plumes of smoke carry prayers skyward and bless the sweat before it begins.
The men strip down to shorts or swimming trunks. Women are asked to wear a long skirt and short-sleeved T-shirt. While some tribes prefer single-sex sweats, others allow co-ed participation. The VA, a federal program, must be open - both to genders and belief systems. If a participant wishes to pray to Jesus or recite verses of Quran while sweating, that's just fine.
"Pray to whatever it is you believe in," Betonney says.
With Thomas seated in the lodge, the group of about a dozen slowly enter. On their hands and knees, the participants - about half Native American, the others Anglo - greet the spiritual leader with: "Permission to enter." He welcomes each person, one by one, as they add the words, "All my relations," and crawl in a clockwise circle to take their positions. The space is no more than 5 feet high and about 12 feet in diameter, and on some occasions, holds up to 25 people. In the center is the pit where hot stones will be placed. A bucket of water is on hand, not to drink, but to pour on the rocks and fill the lodge with steam.
No one can say just how hot it'll get. Answers, from people who've been to a sweat before, range from "damn hot" to "very frickin' hot." But the point is to separate from the physical, detach and lose oneself in prayer. James speaks of having hallucinations, seeing "fairy shadows" and images of a "veil blowing in the wind." If the heat becomes unbearable, some suggest putting your head on Mother Earth.
"She'll take care of you," they say.
The stones, said to represent ancestors or teachers, are brought in one by one by the "fire man," a participant who keeps the fire going and brings fresh hot stones into the lodge before each round. "When they're real hot" the man, who's both Navajo and Hopi, says later, "you can see their faces."
"They speak to you," Betonney adds, "through the steam."
The fire, Thomas says, "symbolizes the same fire that's in you ... that spirit that's burning in you."
The darkness inside is the kind where you can't see your hand in front of your face. Sometimes, when cedar, sage or sweet grass is sprinkled on the stones, which might glow if they're hot enough, you can see the orange of the burn. The sweet smells fill the crowded space, as do the rhythmic beatings of the drum and shakings of rattles, the Shoshone songs and chants. Participants pray, some silently, some in whispers, others in moans or cries. They pray for their loved ones - from the past, present and future - and pray for the people they speak of and share stories of between rounds.
One veteran, who's disconnected from his own children, asks everyone to "pray for fatherless chldren and childrenless fathers." Simon, an Arapoho, speaks of an uncle who just killed himself and a cousin who died in a car wreck. Betonney requests prayers for friends who are struggling with addiction. Many of the men, including Thomas, speak of soldiers and veterans who need peaceful lives and states of mind.
When the flap opens, after each round, the released steam carries the groups' prayers. The cool air that enters is said to be the breath of the creator.
Participants are encouraged to stay for all four rounds, to "complete the circle," but doing this isn't easy. Dan, the first-timer, begins a mad scramble toward the exit after the first round. "I've got to get out of here," he cries. "I'm sorry, but I can't do it."
Thomas reaches out to the sound and talks Dan down as the others look on. He asks Dan, who's fought in three wars, to bow his head to Mother Earth. Dan is blessed with special prayers. Eagle feathers and cedar smoke are waved around his drenched body. And in the end, this veteran breathes easier, finds a sense of calm and retreats to his spot in the lodge. "This is really something," he says later. "I'm never going to forget it."
Later, after the second round, Simon - his face to the ground - moans: "I'm going to be sick." He crawls from the lodge and wretches, repeatedly, outside. Thomas and several assistants join him for blessings by the spiritual fire. They pray for his healing and strength. Having just been in treatment for a few days, the poisons are still deep inside and need to come out. Purged, Simon crawls back inside to join the group.
Between rounds, participants sprawl on the floor. Some lie flat on their backs, knees up; others are in the fetal position or face down. Still others look around, sharing nods of encouragement and gentle smiles. With towels, they wipe away sweat as it pours from their skin, soaking their clothes and hair.
About a third to half of the 15 veterans enrolled in the Eagle's Nest residential treatment program do the sweat at any one time, Betonney says. The other participants are alumni, those receiving outpatient services, or - at today's sweat - Native American veterans getting treatment in the Volunteers of America detoxification program. Many share stories of gratitude. A Navajo vet, who was once living on the streets, says reconnecting with his spiritual side allowed him to move in the right direction.
"You can take yourself to this place [spiritually] any time and any place you want," Betonney likes to remind participants.
The sweat ends as dusk begins to fall. The group, in their dripping clothes, gathers outside and shares deep embraces. James, clean for 115 days, walks out smiling, likening the high, the experience, to doing "an eight-ball of cocaine."
But this is a high of another sort. The sweat lodge experience is one that this veteran, and the others who pray for him, hope will help build him up, bring him peace and make him whole again.
JESSICA RAVITZ can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8776.