Fighting Drug Addiction with Tradition: Alaska Natives Embrace Healing Culture

In the sacred confines of a tribal sweat lodge, Wayne Price, a master woodcarver from the Tlingit tribe, received a profound calling from his creator. 

This divine directive instructed him to harness his artistic talents to aid individuals in their battle against addiction. 

Puzzled by the task presented to him, Price questioned his ability, exclaiming, “What can I do? I’m just a carver.” 

Yet, in that transcendent moment, the creator urged him to craft a healing dugout canoe and a totem pole as recovery instruments.

Price, renowned for his woodwork created with a small adze tool, had previously crafted numerous dugouts and totem poles but had never contemplated creating healing ones. 

The creator’s message revealed a deeper purpose; each wood chip removed from these projects symbolized a life lost to addiction within indigenous communities. The magnitude of this crisis weighed heavily on Price’s heart.

During the years leading up to this revelation, overdose deaths among Alaska Natives and American Indians, primarily due to an influx of drugs from Mexico, reached alarming levels. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019 and 2020 saw the highest overdose death rates within these communities compared to other racial and ethnic groups. 

This crisis underscored the urgent need for culturally sensitive approaches to healing and recovery.

Wayne Price’s personal journey included battling alcoholism, but when he heeded the creator’s call, the cravings ceased, and he embarked on his mission to craft healing totem poles and dugout canoes. 

Despite initial skepticism from various entities, Price remained resolute in his commitment. Today, Wayne Price serves as a Northwest Coast Arts professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, teaching a new generation to infuse their art with meaningful messages. 

His work is scattered throughout Southeast Alaska, where the Tlingit and Haida people have lived for generations.

One of Price’s notable carvings is a tribal clan house post south of downtown Juneau, near the Goldbelt Tram’s path. 

This 10-foot cedar post features a Tlingit warrior holding a paddle on Mount Roberts. It serves as a symbol of strength and recovery for those who view it.

In 2006, Price erected his first healing totem pole in Sitka, inspiring many to seek recovery after standing by its base and reflecting on their journeys. 

The totem includes intricate carvings that convey messages of healing and transformation. A plaque at the base guides viewers on a path of self-reflection and understanding, emphasizing the role of culture in healing.

The incorporation of indigenous culture into addiction treatment is a growing national trend. In Alaska, efforts extend beyond addiction treatment, with programs reviving native culture and traditions, such as language, fishing, hunting, berry picking, dancing, and storytelling. 

Wayne Price’s work stands as a powerful testament to how art and culture can heal and transform lives.

Through his guidance, Price has touched the lives of individuals like Kevin Jones, a Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma member, who found solace and healing through art. 

Price’s unwavering commitment to creating healing art pieces has not only contributed to the preservation of indigenous culture. Still, it has also become a beacon of hope for those struggling with addiction. 

In the process, he has shown that each life, like every stroke of a carver’s tool, has value and potential for transformation.


Francis Stein
Francis Stein
Francis Stein is a writer and traveler who has already traveled most of the states of America. He loves to explore new places and meet new people, and he hopes to continue traveling the world in search of adventure. Francis enjoys writing about his experiences as a way of sharing his love for exploration with others.


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