November 1, 2019

Breaking the Cycle

Brian Cladoosby, immediate past president of the National Congress of American Indians, visits with Sandra Blackmer.

Sandra Blackmer

Seventh-day Adventist Brian Cladoosby is immediate past president of the National Congress of American Indians—the largest Native American representative body recognized by the U.S. government. Cladoosby has also served on the Swinomish Indian Senate, the governing body of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington State, for more than three decades, and as chair since 1997. Described by some as “tough but pragmatic” and “humble but ambitious,” Cladoosby apparently gets things done. But although awarded the American Indian Tribal Leader Award for his exceptional achievements by the Reservation Economic Summit and American Indian Business Trade Fair in 2011, Cladoosby consistently gives the credit for his accomplishments to God.

Adventist Review assistant editor Sandra Blackmer recently talked with Cladoosby about Native Americans’ challenging history, the role that the salmon industry plays in their tribal culture, and their continuing struggles today.—Editors


Tell me a little about yourself.

I was born and raised on the Swinomish Indian reservation about 60 miles north of Seattle. I had grandparents who prayed for us. My grandfather went to a Pentecostal church, and he introduced me to Jesus at a young age. I had a great-uncle and a great-aunt who prayed for us.

Was your grandmother also a Pentecostal? 

My grandmother was murdered when I was 1 year old, so I never got a chance to know her.

How did your family become acquainted with Adventists?

About 35 years ago my wife, Nina, and I were into drugs and alcohol, which was straining our relationship. My wife said that we either needed to go to church or we’d end up in divorce.

As we were searching out churches, an Adventist church was built on the Lummi Indian reservation about one hour north of us. Nina’s grandmother was a strong Adventist, and when Nina was little, her grandmother would take her to church. So when the Adventist church in Lummi was built in 1983, Nina’s brother invited her to go there. Even though it’s a one-hour drive from our home, we’ve been attending ever since.

Do you have children?

Yes, we have two grown daughters, Lavonne and Mary, and two grandchildren, Isabella and Daniel. Having God in our family has made all the difference.

In what way?

In our community it’s what we call breaking the cycle. Native American communities have the highest drug and alcohol rates of any segment of society. So as a leader and a father, my goal is to try to break that cycle of drug and alcohol abuse. My father quit drinking in 1976; Nina and I quit drinking 30 years ago in 1989; and neither of our daughters do drugs or alcohol. Our two grandkids are the first in our family in 100 years to be raised in a home that’s 100-percent drug and alcohol free.

Since you served as the twenty-first president of the National Congress of American Indians from 2013 to 2017, explain the organization’s mission.

The National Congress was founded in 1944, so it’s the oldest and largest Indian organization in the United States. Our goal is to advocate in Washington, D.C., for all 573 tribal nations in the United States. Even though all the tribal nations are distinct sovereigns, the issues we deal with are the same when it comes to health, education, social services, economic development, and infrastructure.

What are your personal major accomplishments during your term of service?

Also some of what we accomplished was started before my presidency, so the baton was handed to me to finish the work. Accomplishments include such things as the Indian Health Care Improvement Act,1 the Tribal Law and Order Act,2 and the Cobell case, working toward ending violence against women.3 We have a long laundry list of accomplishments.

You’ve also served on the Swinomish Indian Senate, the governing body of your Indian tribal community.

I’ve served on the Senate since 1985. This is my thirty-fifth year on the council and my twenty-third year as chairman of the tribe.

What’s the Senate’s function?

We set policy and implement programs that will benefit our community members. The senate’s number-one job is to provide essential governmental services to our people. One of the biggest services we now provide is for those who graduate high school or get a GED; they can get a full-ride scholarship to the college of their choice. Right now we have 1,000 tribal members. Approximately 600 of them are adults, and about 80 are attending higher education on a full-ride scholarship from our people.

We’re trying to break the cycle of high dropout rates that we experience in Indian country. We’ve had to deal with high dropout rates for various reasons. One of those is historical trauma, a result of a federal government policy implemented in the 1870s that basically meant “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Unpack that phrase.

Basically what they did was take 80 percent of the kids ages 6 to 18 away from their parents and transport them to boarding schools to be assimilated into the White man’s culture. They did not allow them to speak their language, associate with their parents or their elders, tell their stories, sing their songs, or anything related to their culture. All church denominations in the United States in the 1870s had a part in running these schools.

A couple generations of kids were basically stolen. They never saw their parents or families again for six to 12 years.

Many people today aren’t aware of that part of Native American history.

Unfortunately, that history is not taught in our schools. When our grandparents and great-grandparents went to these boarding schools, many experienced sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. The mental abuse was off the chart. It was historical trauma, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] at unprecedented levels. When you suffer with PTSD, you need a mental health counselor or drugs to deal with it. Unfortunately, our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents didn’t have counseling available to them, so the drug they turned to was alcohol.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States all had the same policies implemented around the same time for the Native communities. The United Nations developed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.4 The four countries that did not sign UNDRIP were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. They all later reversed their position and endorsed the declaration. The United States under President Obama was the last country to sign in December 2010.5

In what other specific ways are you attempting to break the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse and the high dropout rate in schools?

We’re emphasizing education. During the past 10 years in Swinomish we’ve increased our high school graduation rate to almost 100 percent. We’re also trying to break the cycle of poor dental care. We provide money to pay for children’s dental care because our people are still very poor, and having good teeth to help their self-esteem is especially important for our kids. We also provide funds for clothes and braces. In order for parents to get the certificate for the clothes, they have to show proof that their kids went to a dentist on our reservation. So it’s an incentive.

When we implement these programs it saves money at the tribal, local, county, state, and federal levels because these kids are now getting educated. They’re not on welfare. They’re not on food stamps. They’re not in prison. They’re not in the foster care program. When you add up the money that you could potentially spend on someone who is out there in the world dealing with drugs and alcohol, the costs are enormous. But when you have an educated tribal member who is a productive member of society, paying taxes, it’s just a night-and-day difference.

You’ve been described as being instrumental in the emergence of the Northwest Indian country salmon and seafood industry. What does that mean?

Our people have always been salmon people, have lived on salmon. Our goal is to do anything and everything to try to bring that natural resource back so it does not become extinct.

We live on the Skagit River, the only river in the lower 48 states that has every species of wild salmon still spawning in its tributaries. The actions we take today will impact the next generations. We want to make sure that in seven generations—if the Lord doesn’t come back by then—the person filling my shoes will still be able to share with a reporter that the Skagit River has every species of wild salmon spawning in its tributaries.

What other types of economic-development programs have been put in place for Native Americans in your region?

We have a state-of-the-art health clinic and dental clinic, a housing program, free hearing aids for our elders, and a senior stipend to help pay for their utilities. We serve about 40,000 meals a year to our elders age 55 and older. We also have a heroin treatment center, the first of its kind in the nation.

You’ve been described as “tough but pragmatic,” “religious,” and “humble but ambitious.” Would you say those descriptions are accurate?

My priorities are very simple: God, family, community. I take a lot of my leadership qualities from the Bible. As a leader in Indian country your mentality can never be “I climbed the ladder of success.” Instead, it has to be “I made it to the bottom.”

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Brian Cladoosby (front/red shirt), NCAI president at the time, leads tribal attendees in stretches and warm-ups before the annual NCAI Health Walk in Atlanta in 2014. Seventh-day Adventist Church Native Ministries sponsored the event.

Servant Leadership?

Yes. In our culture we have the totem pole, the story pole. We’re taught that the most important figure of the totem pole is the one on the bottom, the one who holds everybody up. As a young child  I started at the top of the totem pole, and my elders, my grandparents, my parents, held me up. My elected leaders held me up. Slowly I started climbing down that totem pole to where I am today, a leader among my people. I give God the credit for allowing me to do that. The Swinomish Tribe is doing well, not because of me, but because God blesses us.

You have to be humble in leadership; you have to be able to protect what you think is most valuable to you. God gave us this creation to be stewards over it, and we are very, very strong on environmental issues. It’s part of the end-time prophecies that Satan is going to do everything he can not only to destroy God’s family but also His creation, and we’re witnessing that today. It’s our job to protect what we have today, to be that voice for the salmon, the water, the air, and the soil.

In what ways do the challenges that Native Americans face today differ from those of 30 or 40 years ago?

Thirty or 40 years ago the drug of choice was alcohol, but things have evolved to where we are breaking the cycle of alcoholism. But because of the introduction of Oxycontin into our community, we are now seeing the emergence of those who are addicted to heroin. One hundred percent of our tribal members who have become addicted to heroin started with Oxycontin prescriptions.

So we started a program called This Has to Stop, to combat the negative impact of the Oxycontin and the opiates that were being prescribed at unprecedented levels in our community and surrounding communities. This Has to Stop has become a model for heroin treatment and has received national awards.

Are there ways in which the Adventist Church in North America could better minister to or serve Native Americans?

Sadly, the Adventist Church ran one of the U.S. government boarding schools I described earlier to assimilate Native Americans into the White culture, so I would say making Adventists aware of this history and how it negatively impacted the tribes is vitally important.

Just as the field is ripe for missionary work outside the United States, we also have a field that is very ripe in the United States among Native American tribes.

What is the most important thing you would like our readers to take away from this article?

That God is a miracle worker. I am a reflection of that. Only by the grace of God am I here today. Also that historical trauma is still real, it’s still alive—and it’s up to us to break the cycle.


  1. www.ihs.gov/ihcia
  2. www.justice.gov/tribal/tribal-law-and-order-act
  3. www.thoughtco.com/history-behind-the-cobell-case-4082499
  4. www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html
  5. truthout.org/articles/the-us-rethinks-the-un-declaration-on-indigenous-rights-maybe
Sandra Blackmer
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