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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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We Don't Surrender Until We Have To
by Lisa Jones
credits: published in the New York Times - October 2, 2009

A few years back, in a not-unusual state of panic in my personal life and hubris in my professional one, I spent several winter months in Wyoming. More specifically, my job as a journalist required me to sit at a battered kitchen table in the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation, swapping stories with a quadriplegic Northern Arapaho horse gentler and traditional healer named Stanford Addison. I went home with nothing particularly resolved, but happier than I'd been in years.

Stanford had lost more than anyone I'd ever known. He was paralyzed at age 20, when the truck in which he was traveling to a party hit some horses wandering on a dark reservation road. But by the time I arrived 23 years later, he was holding sweat lodges to help his neighbors twice a week. He was assisted in the lodge and the corral by young men and kids, some adopted as his own children, others just passing through or released to him by tribal courts and social programs. When the beds filled up, kids and other visitors slept sprawled on couches or on the floor.

Although terrible things happened on the reservation — crime and addiction and violence were never far away — happiness was all over the place on this ragtag ranch. As the weeks passed, my spirits palpably started to lift. I would find myself breaking into laughter in the middle of washing dishes after dinner, or while I crunched over the snow to see the horses in their shaggy winter coats, puffing steam into the frigid air. Somehow, the volume was being turned down on the internal voice that tended to drive my actions, the voice that shouted, "I must get what I want! I must get what I want! Something is seriously wrong if I don't get what I want!"

Apparently a restless soul like mine was soothed by spending months in the company of a person who persevered — thrived, even — without his needs being even close to met. He had very little money. His body was paralyzed and diabetic, and he was always more or less in pain. Still, he managed to care for all these kids, work his horses, and host a steady stream of visitors from the reservation and beyond. I watched him worry, but not be consumed with worry. I watched him get grumpy, but never rageful. He laughed a lot.

"Time to get going," he'd say before his nephews carried him into the sweat lodge. "Hand me my goggles. And my cape."

He hadn't always been like this. Before his accident, he was as heartless and handsome as a young rebel could be. He was a small-time outlaw who busted broncs, broke hearts, robbed cafes and dealt drugs. After the accident, his 20-year-old body lay unmoving, visited by doctors, nurses, and spirits who began to endow him with unwanted healing powers.

After two years of hospitalization and rehab, he returned home, recognized the sorrow and pity in the eyes of his friends, and decided to kill himself. He tried, failed, and fell back on Plan B: He would get himself killed — which wasn't all that hard to do on the reservation. But this didn't work either. At a rowdy party, Stanford was antagonizing a drunk man with a hammer into what he hoped would become a murderous rage when the man put the hammer down, launched into a description the emotional pain that had always haunted him, and started sobbing.

It took Stanford more than a decade to accept his role as a healer. But by the time I met him, acceptance and surrender were key to who he was.

For example, he usually went bare-chested because shirts made him slip around on his wheelchair. As he rolled into the 20 degree winter day for a cigarette, I asked if he was cold. "I just don't fight it," he said. Or if someone asked how tall he was, he'd say, "six-one, or four feet, depending on how you're measuring."

Me, I came from a culture where control was the gold standard, and surrender gave off a bad smell, like an old refrigerator. Sure, I got happier when I was around Stanford — I enjoyed and benefited from his surrender — but surrender wasn't really my thing. When he sang in the sweat lodge, asking the Creator to pity us, the mantra of the white middle class would go off in my head: "Don't waste your pity on ME, Creator, I'm fine. I've got this credit card and this Toyota and I'm healthy and pity isn't something I really want or need. I deal with my problems by myself. In fact, I'd really rather you didn't do that pity thing with me." Like Stanford, I wasn't going to surrender until I was forced to.

And that day came. I was assaulted by a white man who sometimes lived at Stanford's, a man who had become a friend and, at one point, almost a lover. I wasn't raped or beaten, but I was held down and threatened. I was sure I was going to die. Then the attack suddenly, miraculously, ended. The next night, after I tearfully called home to Colorado and brushed off admonishments that I leave Wyoming and come straight back, I was back in the sweat lodge, heaving with nausea and confusion and praying to the Creator to just please help me. I was horrified by how my own bad judgment had inflamed the situation, and how close I'd come to having my life ruined or ended. Kneeling, I begged (which I never thought I'd do) for mercy (which I never thought I'd want).

There I was, a former agnostic, the daughter of a psychiatrist, sobbing and begging, face to face with the unwelcome fact that I was a mortal, vulnerable, terrified animal.

It helped. A lot.

It didn't just help me. Sitting near a boy who had just been released from jail and a woman who had recently suspected she had stomach cancer, I had prayed for my companions with unusual simplicity. Stanford told me later my prayers had helped another participant — an exhausted grandmother raising a houseful of restive grandchildren by herself.

Stanford says that the more you pray for others the better off you'll be. He also says that Arapaho spiritual practices are hard because Arapaho life is hard, and that the more you suffer the more the Creator hears you. The reservation the Northern Arapaho share with the Eastern Shoshone is just a few miles from the comfortable town of Lander, and a single scenic mountain pass away from Jackson, the seat of a county that is, per capita, the wealthiest in the nation. But it might as well be on a different planet. On the reservation, people I loved died with stunning frequency. Even the young people. Especially the young people.

I don't personally know a more powerful force for good than than the quadriplegic Northern Arapaho in whose sweat lodge I kneeled on that night — a night I wouldn't wish on anyone else, but which, for me, was pivotal. Since then, my personal life has settled down into something calm and gratifying. I think that process began on the floor of the sweat lodge, where, on my knees, I felt my own life moving inside me like I never had before.

Lisa Jones chronicled her friendship with Stanford Addison in her book, "Broken: A Love Story," which was published by Scribner in May. She lives in Colorado. Her Web site is

Related: The Web site of Stanford Addison Ranch ( describes his life and work.

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