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The White Buffalo Recovery Center grounds intergenerational healing in culture and connection

A plastic container sitting on an office table holds a few dozen dried cedar incense sticks, in the shape of a chapstick tube. In the background is a container holds wet sticks and a Tupperware container and Mason jar with the wet cedar mixture.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Dried cedar incense sticks in the White Buffalo office in Arapahoe, with containers holding wet sticks and the ground-up cedar mixture in the background.

At a white plastic table in an office in Arapahoe, Lance Oldman is pounding a mix of ground-up cedar, water and honey into something a bit unexpected: an empty Chapstick tube.

“Fill it up with cedar and use a stick, push them out and they come out perfect little cylindrical circles,” he said.

Oldman is Northern Arapaho and is a certified peer specialist at the White Buffalo Recovery Center, an outpatient addiction treatment facility in Riverton and on the Wind River Reservation.

He’s making sticks of cedar incense. Cedar, he said, is traditionally used to heal the mind, body and spirit.

“We usually collect the green cedar from the juniper tree. After they dry, we’ll say a prayer and we'll put it on the hot charcoals. Smoke that comes from the cedar itself is a cleansing,” he said.

A man wearing glasses, a black baseball hat with an eagle and a blue collared shirt stands in front of sheets of paper with words like “Character” and “Prayer” in both English and Arapaho
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Lance Oldman is a peer specialist at the White Buffalo Center. One of the programs the center offers is focused on helping people to read Arapaho and reconnect to the culture through language.

But Oldman said burning cedar in that way isn’t always possible.

“Time comes along and we no longer have fireplaces like we used to a long time ago,” he said. “And we don't always have a fire going.”

So, he and his co-workers set about figuring out how to make cedar incense, which involved a lot of trial and error. But a tube of Chapstick sitting on the table gave him a eureka moment.

“Bing! There's just that little flash, it's like, ‘Alright, man!’ I pulled it out, put some [ground cedar] in there and pushed it out. And everybody's like, ‘Whoa! That’s cool.’”

Making cedar incense is just one small part of what Oldman gets up to at White Buffalo, where he’s been working for almost 10 years. The center supports all enrolled tribal members and tribal descendents, and offers both clinical services and a whole host of culturally-informed programs run by peer specialists, like language and crafting classes, drumming, a 12-step Medicine Wheel Program and sweat lodges.

“All our families and our communities are in need of this healing, right here, right now,” Oldman said.

Northern Arapaho tribal member Luke Brown works at the White Buffalo office in Riverton and agrees.

“The solution to addiction is not abstinence. The solution to addiction is connection,” he said, referencing a TED Talk on addiction from author Johann Hari.

One of Brown’s big roles as a peer specialist has been facilitating Mending Broken Hearts, a bimonthly three-day workshop that provides healing around grief, loss and intergenerational trauma.

A man wearing a striped maroon polo shirt with long dark hair and a beard and mustache stands in front of a glass door and windows, which have fliers advertising different programs on them.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media

“Mending Broken Hearts itself is an effort to help resolve unresolved grief and to complete some incomplete relationships. It helps us look at where our trauma has stemmed from,” he said.

Brown said much of that trauma is rooted in colonialism.

“From the wars, from the murder of our Native people in the past, and moving forward into the boarding school system where our culture was outlawed and, in a way, beaten out of young children in the boarding schools – that type of history still affects us today,” he said.

In the past, the workshop has just been for adults. But now it’s expanding to include the whole family. Brown will be co-facilitating the new program with Kenzie Monroe, White Buffalo’s adolescent peer specialist. She said bringing young people into the workshop is a logical next step.

“A lot of our adolescents are struggling and they don't understand where the grief is coming from, or understand their feelings or healing. So I think that's good to be a part of that [conversation],” she said.

Monroe is Northern Arapaho and recently went through the adult version of the Mending Broken Hearts workshop herself. She said she came away with a better understanding of the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma. She said bringing the learning to families will hopefully have a sort of reverse ripple effect.

“There's going to be that understanding and that forgiveness and ultimate healing,” she said. “I think it's a good thing.”

The entrance to a blue-gray modular building, with wooden stairs and a wooden ramp on either side and a big white sign that says “White Buffalo Recovery Center.”
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
The White Buffalo Recovery Center’s office in Arapahoe on the Wind River Reservation.

Back at the White Buffalo office in Arapahoe, Brandon Brown said drumming is one way he’s found healing.

“I grew up around the drum. I mean, my dad brought me to the drum at a very young age and my earliest memory is falling asleep at the drum,” he said. “Now I’m sitting there with him singing.”

Brown is also Northern Arapaho and started working as a peer specialist with White Buffalo two months ago. He grew up in an alcoholic home, but he said drumming and staying connected to his culture have helped him.

“That's what helps me in my sobriety, is being at the drum and expressing myself. And when I sing our cultural songs, it's like praying,” he said.

Brown is 36 and wants to share that tool with others. He said a lot of the people he works with are a generation or two older than him and may have been severed from their culture. But he’s grateful he can share what he knows with them.

“They really connect with me and they want to learn more. They appreciate what I got to say because what I say is true and honest,” he said.

Even though he’s new to the job, Brown said he’s passionate about connecting with clients and that the healing can go both ways.

“I can help them and talk to them about my experience and they can tell me about their experiences. We help each other in sobriety and recovery,” he said.

A man wearing a black striped polo shirt and clear glasses stands with his arm resting around a big drum. The drum is painted blue on the sides and has a white bison on it.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Peer specialist Brandon Brown stands with his drum at his desk at the White Buffalo office in Arapahoe. He says drumming and singing are a big part of his healing process.

Above Brown’s desk is a large drum. Its sides are painted blue with a white bison on it. As he talks about the drum, his eyes light up.

“He's a circle because of the circle of life. And when we drum on him, he makes a beat and that beat is a heartbeat. And it's not only his heartbeat, it’s the heartbeat of our tribe,” he said.

Brown points to the criss-crossing ties making triangles all around the outside of the drum, which he said represent mountains and teepees.

“It's not only his heartbeat, but it's my heartbeat. You know, it's my love. This is my passion. This is the drum,” he said.

The first Mending Broken Hearts for Families workshop will take place from June 12 through 14 in Riverton. It’s open to youth and their parents or guardians, with a suggested age of 13 and up. However, parents and guardians are encouraged to use their discretion to assess whether their child is at an age where they can engage with difficult topics like colonization and intergenerational trauma.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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