A Journey to Wellness

In tribal communities throughout the United States, alcohol-related crime and death are immense concerns for citizens. While exploring ideas on how to decrease the high rates of alcohol and substance use by Native American populations for National Drug Court Resource Center, I came across several programs that the Navajo Nation is implementing to combat drug and alcohol problems. In an effort to learn about these initiatives, I got in touch with and interviewed a member of the Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation.

Regina Begay-Roanhorse, Court Administrator Alamo-Tohajiilee Judicial District, started her legal career as a prosecutor in 1991 after passing the Navajo Nation’s bar exam. Later, she transitioned to a job with the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department while working on behavioral health projects for 21 tribes and pueblos.

Eventually, Begay-Roanhorse returned to the court system where she merged her interests in justice and public health. Begay-Roanhorse was inspired to tackle alcohol and drug issues after losing a brother (Reginald Begay) to alcoholism. Reginald Begay was a veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Reginald Begay

After she became a court administrator, Begay-Roanhorse proposed creating a Tribal Healing to Wellness Court to help residents overcome their severe substance use disorders. She knew that these courts could potentially alleviate the high rate of alcohol-related deaths and chronic diseases associated with alcohol in Native communities. Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts (a type of treatment court) use traditional and faith-based teachings along with outpatient treatment, counseling, support groups, and court supervision. The goal is to restore and heal the individual, not to punish participants.

“Tribal communities have always been about healing and restoration,” Begay-Roanhorse told me. “We are all related by some clanship or affinity, and we welcome people back into our community. This is not a new concept to tribes.”

Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts are transforming lives. Begay-Roanhorse shared with me the story of how the court was able to restore a family. The husband and wife battled alcoholism and lost custody of their children. But after successfully completing the treatment court’s program requirements, the couple was reunited with their children.

Photo of a certificate ceremony for participants completing Navajo Life Value Engagement sessions
A certificate ceremony for participants completing Navajo Life Value Engagement sessions

I asked Begay-Roanhorse what she would say to someone dealing with an alcohol or drug issue who was eligible to participate in the Tribal Healing to Wellness Court. “I would ask them if they would want to participate, and if they want to get well. And if they say yes, they are a good candidate to begin their journey to wellness.”

In an era of mass incarceration, there needs to be as many strategies as possible in place to divert citizens away from jails and prisons. Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts allow participants to live in their communities and receive the treatment they need.

To learn more about Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts, visit http://www.wellnesscourts.org/.


Zephi Francis is a research specialist at the Justice Programs Office.

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