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A Cultural Connection Drives Personal Transformation

Remember that week in March 2020 when Maine was getting its first glimpse of pandemic lockdown?

That was the week that Steven Knockwood was released from prison, where he’d been serving a sentence for drug trafficking. Less than two years later, his life has been utterly transformed—from self-loathing, self-medicating, and self-sabotage to love, connection, and making an impact.

Knockwood, 47 years old and four years into recovery, manages Opportunity House, the Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness indigenous men’s recovery home in Bangor. He’s gotten his driver’s license back, he’s one year into a loving relationship, and has found family—both with his girlfriend and her three kids and with other indigenous men in recovery.

“I speak what’s here,” he says, tapping his chest. “I have a daily practice of smudging in the morning when the sun comes up, and I ask the Creator, let me make that long journey—the longest journey in human history—let me connect my head and my heart. In that connection, there’s true life. There’s love.”

There’s a Cherokee proverb that talks about the battle within each of us, the black wolf and the white wolf. The grandfather tells the story to the grandson, and at the end of the story, the grandson asks which one will win. And the grandfather says, “Which one will you feed?”

“That was the battle,” says Knockwood, who suffered a back injury as a 23-year-old construction worker and was prescribed opioids for pain relief. “I didn’t have a way at that point to feed that white wolf, and so the black one became dominant. I got involved in drug trafficking. I became cancerous to my community, to anybody’s life that I touched, and it killed me inside.”

Growing up, Knockwood knew that his family saw the world differently, that they were more focused on the family and the community—the tribe—than on individualism or competition.

He knew that his great-grandfather was of the Muin (or Bear) clan of Indian Brook, Shubik, Nova Scotia, and had settled in Maine after being forcibly educated in a residential school intended to erase his indigenous heritage.

But he hadn’t identified, personally, as an indigenous man until he was introduced to the ceremony and traditions in a more formal way in 2017 at the Aroostook Mental Health Center’s co-ed Residential Treatment Facility in Limestone, commonly called “The Farm.” It wasn’t his first attempt to get sober, but this time he was ready for honesty. He was also introduced to The Red Road to Wellbriety: In the Native American Way, which presents Wellbriety Movement founder Don Coyhis’ vision of the interconnectedness of 12-step recovery and traditional Native culture, with the help of elders in the Native community.

“Being introduced to Wellbriety sparked a fire inside of me to really learn and understand where I came from,” Knockwood says. “I had this thirst to understand who I was culturally. And that journey directed me toward recovery, and my recovery became one and the same. Finally I had an understanding and found the piece of identity that I’d never had.”

At the same time, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency was investigating him. On that honest streak, he pled guilty to drug trafficking and, in 2018, was sentenced to six years in prison, all but three-and-a-half years of which would be suspended.

When Knockwood was released in those early days of the pandemic, Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness was renovating what would become Opportunity House, an indigenous men’s recovery residence, and was able to put his construction experience to use. From there, Knockwood has grown into a leadership role as house manager and someone devoted to serving his recovery community by facilitating smudges and other cultural practices.

“This work is life-saving,” says Lisa Sockabasin, co-CEO for Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness. “We’ve heard from many that when they’re able to reconnect with culture they find strength. We wanted to create a sacred place for people to heal and to recover, regardless of where they may be on their recovery journey, where they can reconnect with their culture. That may be learning language or engaging in ceremony or it may be engaging in a sweat or a healing circle. Whatever that means for the individual, we help to create that. Opportunity House is instrumental in providing a place for people to connect with each other and to connect not only in suffering but in hope that things can be different—and that’s what people are seeing.”

Daily life at Opportunity House is much like it is at any other recovery home but with a cultural plan added into the evidence-based mix.

“We have an ongoing dialogue of culture, of relationship and of self-worth, and we build our recovery home in the same fashion that indigenous ancestors built their family units,” Knockwood says. For example, the men wanted a Christmas tree, but within their indigenous culture it didn’t seem right to kill a tree to bring it in the house. So they chose a live tree, and this spring they’ll plant it in Millinocket, where Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness has established a 45-acre Gathering Place recovery center along the Penobscot River.

That same love extended to the cedar tree—and to all living beings—is extended to the men in recovery, understanding that their path might not always be straight or narrow.

“If you are on your recovery journey and are in crisis or you return to use, we say that’s when you need us the most,” Sockabasin says. “That’s when we wrap around more love and support. That’s our focus, really loving people regardless of the choices that they make. And eventually the choices that they make are choices of service, of digging into their own group. We’re seeing people who have never been in a formal recovery program before and needed one for decades and they’re thriving.”

For Knockwood, a life once driven by need is now driven by love. And he’s seeing the other men changing, too.

“We’re seeing lives changed on a deep, profound level,” he says. “It’s unreal to see how bright that fire is inside these people when you’re there to stand with them and fan that flame. I commonly say to them, the same flame that fueled my addiction became the very fuel of my recovery. It was a flame of identity.”

Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz
Amy Paradysz writes for Journey, Maine Women Magazine, Green & Healthy Maine Homes and the Portland Press Herald. She has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She lives in Scarborough.

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