Healing to Wellness Court graduate, Verle Smith, proves recovery is possible

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News 

The Tulalip Police Department issued a recent press release that included a report from the Washington State Department of Health, stating that there were eighty-one deaths linked to fentanyl in the first half of 2018. An increase of nearly seventy percent from the previous year. Last year there were approximately 72,000 deaths nationwide, which was shocking on its own. This latest news means that the opioid epidemic is still very much on the rise in America, as families and communities continue to search for solutions to help their loved ones recover. 

At the beginning of 2017, the Tulalip Tribes decided to take different approach to help heal their people struggling with addiction by introducing the Healing to Wellness Court. Similar to a state drug court, Tulalip’s five-stage program also requires addicts convicted on drug-related charges to take random drug tests and attend mandated court appearances. When conjuring up the idea of the wellness court, the tribe put together a team dedicated to reinstilling traditional values that tribal societies hold so dear, community and culture. 

“We take in what’s called high-risk, high-need,” explains Healing to Wellness Court Coordinator, Hilary Sotomish. “High-risk to reoffend criminally and a high-need addiction, meaning they can’t do it [sobriety]by themselves, they need a team to help them through it. Our program is about eighteen to twenty-four months and depending on how well they go through each stage determines how long it takes. For some people it takes eighteen months, but we expect relapse to happen. If they have relapses or have things that they can’t get done, we require them to take life skills classes and have a job or be in schooling. We don’t go over twenty-four months. Research has shown that if you have somebody in a wellness court or drug court for over twenty-four months, it’s not successful.”

Tribal member Verle Smith joined the Healing to Wellness Court a few short months after the program began. For nearly two years, he’s followed the program, rebuilding relationships with his family and within the community, rediscovering who he is.

“At the beginning it was a struggle, I didn’t know which way to go,” he says. “I had to give it to my higher power, listen up and work on myself. It slowly got brighter.”

Verle mentioned that he relapsed during the course of the program but didn’t let that dark moment deter him from his path to sobriety. He instead used the relapse as a learning experience, a reminder of what was truly important to him. On December 10, Verle’s family, friends and supporters gathered at the Greg Williams Court to proudly cheer him on as he became the first graduate of the Healing to Wellness Court.

“There was one struggle in between but I brightened up and just punched forward,” he states. “Life became so lovely. I now have the opportunity to be around family. I love it. I still struggle today but every morning I have the opportunity for another day, so I’m living it one day at time. I do my mediation prayer and I believe that’s the key, make sure you say your morning prayers. I talk to a lot of people every day, like my best friend. Him and my family are my inspiration to fight harder for other people who need it. I love that people still have my back after everything.”  

Hilary and the Wellness Court team presented Verle with three gifts in recognition of his accomplishment; a blanket, a drum and plaque that showcased the five coins he received when completing each phase of the program. Over the course of an emotional two hours, Verle’s friends and family members offered teary congratulatory speeches as well as many long embracing hugs and a couple traditional songs. All six Tulalip Board of Directors expressed their happiness of Verle’s success, including Les Parks who helped get the Healing to Wellness Court started.

“This was initially a pilot project that is obviously working,” Les expressed. “The wellness court team is tasked with ascertaining who is on highest risk, highest need in our community. Our court identified nineteen high-risk, high-needs and I bet you there are over two hundred members out there who would love to take part in this program, who don’t fall under that category. We need to expand this program and keep working to bring on some of those low-risk, low-need people.”

Every Tuesday, wellness participants attend court at the Tulalip Justice center and speak directly with Judge Ron Whitener about their struggles and successes. Depending on their setbacks or progress, Judge Whitener awards the participants with either a sanction or an incentive. 

“Tulalip, like most communities, are facing a lot of issues with heroin,” says Judge Whitener. “Programs like the wellness court are a more traditional way of doing things. Regular drug court is very hands off, not very supportive and the person’s expected to go and fix themselves. You got to work with them, try to get through it with them, knowing it takes a long time. I think that process is really more appropriate for Tulalip. 

Just as Board Member Parks said, we’re looking to expand the ideals of this wellness court, which is for our highest risk people, and move those ideals down into the other cases and try to make the whole court look more like the wellness court. I’m really proud of Verle, I’ve known him a long time and he’s a good person. I’m really happy he was our first graduate. We have serval others coming up, so we’re looking to make these celebrations quite regular in the community.”

The Healing to Wellness Court is on track to present seventeen more plaques to recovering addicts, who are slated to graduate from the program throughout 2019. 

The wellness court participants developed their own community of support and often encourage each other to stay focused on their journey. Each participant was in attendance of Verle’s graduation and a few even spoke, stating that Verle serves as an inspiration to his fellow participants. This was something that Verle was pleased to hear and reassured the community that he’s willing to help others and hopes that his story shows that recovery is possible through hard work and determination.

“My son is here with me today, you have no idea what that means to me,” Verle emotionally expressed. “My daughter was by my side all day today, like she wasn’t going to let me go again. If it wasn’t for the wellness court, I don’t know where I’d be – if I’d even still be here.  They gave me the opportunity to experience something that works for my life. I didn’t know which way to turn, so I figured I’d try something different and I’m grateful for it. When I first went to treatment, I told my wife that I’m in the place that I need to be. I want to thank the wellness court for it all. I now plan to go through the rest of my life bringing the next person closer to where they’re supposed to be, to where they’re needed.”

For more information about the Healing to Wellness Court, please contact (360) 716-4773.

Cooperation Keys Salmon Management, Recovery

“Being Frank”


By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

As we begin our third decade of the annual state and tribal salmon co-managers’ salmon season setting process called North of Falcon, it’s a good time to look at how far we’ve come and talk about our hopes for the future.

There were some tough days in the decade following the 1974 ruling by Judge George Boldt in U.S. v Washington, which upheld tribal treaty-reserved fishing rights and established the tribes as co-managers of the salmon resource with the state of Washington.

At first the state refused to implement the ruling under the mistaken idea that the Boldt decision would be overturned on appeal. There was chaos on the water. It got so bad that Judge Boldt suspended the state’s authority to manage salmon for several months and turned the state’s management authority over to the federal government.

It took time, but gradually the state and tribes learned to trust one another and work together. We realized the value of working cooperatively together to manage the resource rather than spending our time and money on attorneys fighting each other in court.

Out of that need for trust and cooperation, the North of Falcon process was born. It is named after the cape on the Oregon Coast that marks the southern boundary of the management area for fisheries harvesting Washington salmon and it extends north to the Canadian border.

While North of Falcon negotiations begin in earnest this month, the state and tribal co-managers have been hard at work for weeks developing pre-season forecasts, conservation goals and estimates of impacts to specific salmon stock at various levels of fishing effort.

This year the process has a new participant in Jim Unsworth, who recently replaced Phil Anderson as director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. We look forward to working with him to develop management plans and fishing seasons that will address our salmon recovery goals while providing some fishing opportunity. We will also work with Mr. Unsworth to protect and restore salmon habitat and to properly manage our fish hatcheries that we need to support fishing opportunity.

We have a lot of work to do together in the years ahead to recover salmon and address the many conservation challenges we face. But we know that our communities – and our shared natural resources – are stronger when the co-managers work together.

After all, we have much in common. With the current condition of the degraded habitat in our rivers and marine waters, we all need hatcheries to provide salmon for harvest. We also need good habitat for our fish. Whether hatchery or wild, salmon need plenty of clean, cold water, access to and from the ocean, and good in-stream and nearshore marine habitat where they can feed, rest and grow.

It is the amount and quality of salmon habitat – more than any other factor – that determines the health of the salmon resource. We must carefully manage the habitat, the hatcheries and the fisheries if we are to return salmon to abundant and sustainable levels.  Successful salmon recovery depends on it.

“Being Frank” Attention, Action Needed For Salmon Recovery


By Lorraine Loomis, Chair, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


Why have salmon been pouring back into the Columbia River in record numbers recently while returns to the Washington coast and Puget Sound continue to drop? One big reason is that for the past decade someone in a position of authority has been in charge of protecting and restoring Columbia River salmon.

That person has been U.S. District Court Judge James Redden. Three times during the past 10 years he has rejected plans to operate hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River basin that would have jeopardized salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. He ordered more water spilled over the dams to aid fish passage, even though that meant less water to generate power. He has also insisted on specific habitat improvements to aid in the recovery of salmon. Redden recently stepped down from the case, but has been replaced by federal court Judge Michael Simon.

That kind of attention and bold, targeted actions are exactly what we need to turn around salmon recovery in western Washington. Salmon recovery is failing because federal and state governments allow salmon habitat to be destroyed faster than it can be restored. This trend shows no sign of improvement despite drastic harvest reductions, careful use of hatcheries and extensive habitat restoration projects.

The ongoing loss of the salmon resource affects entire tribal communities in western Washington. Salmon is one of our most important traditional foods and a foundation of our cultures. Every year we try to set aside salmon to feed our families in the winter and to put fish on the table for ceremonies and funerals, but every year it is becoming more difficult. As the salmon disappear, our treaty-reserved  harvest rights are threatened more every day.

That is why our late chairman, Billy Frank Jr., and other tribal leaders created the Treaty Rights at Risk initiative three and a half years ago and took it to the White House. Our goal is to have the protection of treaty-reserved rights institutionalized in the federal government through the White House Council on Native American Affairs. President Obama created the council nearly two years ago. Addressing tribal natural resources concerns was one of five main foundations of the council, but the Council has yet to address this charge. As President Obama prepares to leave the White House in 2017, our need becomes greater every day.

The failure of salmon recovery in western Washington is the failure of the federal government to meet its trust responsibility to protect salmon and the treaty-reserved rights of tribes. Treaty Rights at Risk calls for the federal government to assume control and responsibility for a more coordinated salmon recovery effort in western Washington. But so far, the federal government’s lack of progress has been disappointing. There has been plenty of discussion, but little action to reverse the negative trend in the condition of salmon habitat in this region. That needs to change.

We shouldn’t need a federal court judge to provide the proper attention, protection and targeted actions to restore salmon. We would prefer to work together with our state and federal co-managers through the White House Council on Native American Affairs. Together, we could take effective action to recover salmon runs.

We have already developed recovery plans and identified barriers to salmon recovery in western Washington’s watersheds. Now we need a commitment from the White House to tackle the most pressing obstacles in each watershed and provide the leadership necessary to put those salmon recovery plans into action.

If salmon are to be in the future of this region we must act now before it is too late.

34 years of encouraging wellbriety

Language department sings welcome song in Lushootseed at the opening of the banquet
Language department sings welcome a song in Lushootseed at the opening of the banquet

By Monica Brown, Tulalip News writer

TULALIP, WA – Addiction can happen to anyone. It is not something that strikes instantly; it begins as a habit, slowly overtaking the person in a process that can take anywhere from days to years. An addiction starts as a habit that becomes harmful to the person, eventually they reach a threshold where they are no longer in control of their choices but are instead controlled by their habit.

Tulalip celebrated its 34th annual Wellbriety Banquet at the Tulalip Resort’s Orca ballroom on Saturday, Sept 21st.  As people arrived and filled the ballroom they greeted one another with hugs, handshakes and laughter. The annual banquet provides an occasion for tribal members to come together and recognize each other’s challenges as they overcome addiction.

The language department opened the event by greeting everyone with a welcome song sung in Lushootseed. Tribal board member Mel Sheldon started off the evening of speeches by thanking everyone for being there and invited the tribal members that had been asked to speak to come to the stage and tell their story about addiction and recovery.

Katie Jones told her story of addiction, recovery and how it has affected not only her life but her children’s lives. “Our addiction takes over; when they say “It’s becoming you” they’re not lying. It becomes your best friend,” said Katie. She is now part of many support groups and helps others stay on the path to recovery. She is also beginning a program which will help guide parents through the system to help them get custody of their children back.

Rudy Madrigal is now a legitimate, successful business man.  He explained how his addiction was different in a way that it wasn’t all about substance abuse, “I bring a different type of addiction; I was addicted to money.” Rudy admitted how he remembers selling to many of the people in the room. “Addiction is where you lose your family; you lose everything. I even lost my reservation. I was excluded from this reservation for what I did.”

The stories are upsetting to listen to but they have an ending that gives hope to others struggling with their addiction.  When Board member Deborah Parker was asked to speak, she explained how when people share their stories of hurt or anger, how important it is to cleanse yourself off so you aren’t carrying the hurt or anger around with you.

Deborah said, “In a teaching an elder gave me this week, “He said to make sure you wash yourself with water, wherever you go.” You can go to the river; you can go to the bay. Go, be next to the water. Even if you don’t have time for that, when you wash yourself off in the morning, make sure you take that water and you cleanse yourself and ask for something for yourself, maybe it’s  healing or to release some anger or hurt you have in your heart.”

Sarah Murphy and Children2Before the live entertainment and dancing would start they began the sobriety countdown.  As the 40 year countdown went on, throughout the room as people stood to declare how long they had been clean and sober it was made evident that quite a few attendees have been enjoying the Wellbriety banquets for many years.


Chairman, Mel Sheldon welcomes everyone to the banquet.