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Alcohol drives Flagstaff's high Native American arrest rate but recovery possible

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Gary Gishie lives his life one day at a time.

The 31-year-old recovering alcoholic is one of the great success stories to come out of the Coconino County DUI/Drug Court and the Coconino County Detention Facility in Flagstaff's Exodus substance abuse rehabilitation program.

Gishie is open, hard-working, well-spoken and likable. It is hard to picture him being arrested more than 20 times for low-level crimes he committed while intoxicated after he moved from the Navajo Nation onto the streets of Page and Flagstaff.

"I have a mental obsession, I have a physical allergy and I have a spiritual malady. Those are the things that make me want to drink more and more," Gishie said. "I put all my faith in alcohol. That came first before anything or anyone. When I got sober, sobriety had to come first."

He has been sober for 19 months.

These days, he spends a lot of his time helping newly recovering alcoholics with their sobriety, including those in the Exodus program.

As a Navajo man, he also shares a dubious distinction with the most over-represented group of inmates at the jail. Native Americans typically account for 50 to 80 percent of the Exodus program’s roughly 70 participants and make up more than half of the inmate population at the jail. Most are there on misdemeanor charges related in some way to substance abuse.


The single agency that contributes the most inmates to the jail is Flagstaff Police Department. Of the roughly 33,000 arrests FPD made from 2011 to 2015, half the suspects were white and nearly half were Native American in a city where only about 12 percent of residents are Native American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Flagstaff Police Chief Kevin Treadway attributes the high arrest rate to what he calls the city’s “vulnerable population,” which essentially means chronic street alcoholics.

“The serial inebriate and homeless issue is not unique to Flagstaff but it’s common in many border towns and that population here in Flagstaff is over-represented by the Native American race,” Treadway said. “It’s uncomfortable for me to say that. It almost sounds racist to say it. But if you’re to truly understand (the problem), those are the people that are coming to our attention.”

Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission Policy Analyst Rodney L. Tahe said other border towns report a similar trend in part because rural reservation residents tend to gather in the nearby cities to shop, work and access services

 In addition, there are no liquor stores on the Navajo Nation, and possession, sale and public consumption of alcohol, as well as public intoxication, are illegal on the reservation with limited exceptions, such as Twin Arrows Casino west of Flagstaff. That criminalization of alcohol drives a disproportionate number of reservation residents with alcohol abuse problems tied to joblessness into nearby cities. 

FPD and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission have each received a small number of formal complaints alleging racial profiling or bias by FPD against Native Americans and neither agency has found any of them to be substantiated.


“I tell everyone that, for me, Flagstaff (Police Department) is the bar that everyone needs to meet because of the amount of effort they have put into all the programs they have done,” said Tahe, who praised FPD’s cultural awareness training, Citizen Liaison Committee and transparency in producing records so the commission can investigate complaints.

Between 2011 and 2015, FPD officers gave 15 percent of the department’s traffic citations to Native American drivers and 79 percent to Caucasians. In contrast, Native American suspects accounted for half the shoplifting arrests, almost half the public consumption and disorderly conduct arrests, and more than half of the assault and aggravated assault arrests. In most cases, Treadway said, the police are responding to calls for help.

“We do not get to choose the race of the people we come into contact with,” he said.


That does not mean all or even most Native Americans are alcoholics. This year, a study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found little difference between alcohol consumption rates among Native Americans and Caucasians except that Native Americans were more likely to abstain from drinking altogether.

“If you drink alcohol, there is a negative stereotype and it comes from the older generation,” Tahe said. “They automatically label you what they call a ‘glonnie,’ which is a derogatory term for being a drunk. It’s not a good word here (on the Navajo Nation). Most people don’t like that term, so they’d rather enjoy alcohol somewhere else without that label being attached to them, especially by family members.”

A closer look at FPD’s arrest data shows a disproportionately high recidivism rate among Native Americans is skewing the numbers dramatically. In September 2016, for instance, 56 percent of the 23 suspects FPD arrested at least four times within a 90-day-period were Native American.

More than half the Native Americans FPD arrested from 2011 to 2015 had already been arrested at least once in Flagstaff before during that five-year period. No other racial group had such a high re-arrest rate. Overall, about 60 percent of unique individuals arrested were white and about 20 percent were Native American.

“We know that there’s a small population of folks in any community that come to the attention of law enforcement,” Treadway said.

Gishie used to be one of them.


Gishie does not blame anyone else for his addiction, but like many Exodus and DUI/Drug Court participants, his path to alcoholism included a lifetime of trauma. When Gishie was 8 years old, his parents’ drinking caused the family to become homeless. He spent the next two years sleeping in a truck with a camper shell with his mother, father and four siblings at Bonsall Park in Glendale.

“Alcohol has been in my family since day one,” he said. “As far back as I can remember, alcohol was always around.”

In April 1996, Gishie’s 12-year-old sister was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Gishie was 10.

The family moved to a tiny house in Kaibeto on the Navajo Nation. His father loved them but would disappear periodically with Gishie’s grandfather to drink in Page. His mother worked hard to support their family as a housekeeper even though she, too, was an alcoholic. 

In February 2005, Gishie's older brother Gerald died in a hit-and-run in Glendale.

Gishie had a good job framing and siding houses, he had a home of his own in Flagstaff, he had a car and he was in a relationship, but he was not happy. When his younger brother Willard died in a car crash near Yuma in February 2007, it broke him.

“I started blaming God,” Gishie said. “That’s the honest truth. I always thought, if there’s really a God out there, why is he doing this to my family?”

He turned to alcohol. As addiction took over, his relationship fell apart, he moved back to the reservation, lost his construction job after being injured in a car crash and, in 2010, became homeless in Page. Alcohol, he said, turned him from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. He couldn't stop.


Page Police Department arrested Gishie 13 times for misdemeanors like theft, assault, disorderly conduct and drinking in public while he was living on the streets. Often, he was so intoxicated he could not remember what he had done. In 2011 he moved to Flagstaff, where he slept mostly on the streets and learned to panhandle and shoplift to feed his addiction.

He was arrested repeatedly on misdemeanors until August 2013, when FPD arrested him on his third shoplifting charge, which is an automatic felony in Arizona. He had two options: DUI/Drug Court or prison. DUI/Drug Court Judge Ted Reed let Gishie out of jail on probation in March 2014. In April, he went on a nine-day bender that ended with his arrest.

“People think that recovery is a matter of willpower,” said Exodus Program Director Dr. Valarie Hannemann. “That’s not what addiction and alcoholism really is. It’s a mid-brain problem. Anytime you feel stressed, anytime you feel overwhelmed, you are going to go into survival mode and because of the way addiction works in the brain, anytime you hit survival mode, you want to use.”

At an October mayoral summit in Flagstaff, Tahe said, city leaders and the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission talked about the need for more municipal control over liquor sales in the border towns. 

Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil wants the liquor industry to help pay the costs alcohol imposes on society. He wants the Navajo Nation, Flagstaff and Coconino County to commit money to build a residential aftercare treatment program for recovering addicts after jail. He would also like to see Arizona legislators change the laws to allow law enforcement to hold street alcoholics who are a danger to themselves in a detox center for five days without having to arrest them.

“We keep doing the same old thing and getting the same results," Pribil said. "We need to try something more radical to try to change this. We need to start trying different things because what we’re doing is not working.”


If there's one thing Gishie wants other alcoholics to know, it is this: recovery is possible, but you can't do it alone. You need the right mindset, the right recovery and 12-step programs, a good support system and faith in a higher power.

Gishie's first attempt in Exodus lasted 30 days. He resigned himself to the idea of prison and relapsed again. Two experiences in 2014 changed his life. First, he got an in-jail work assignment cleaning up the intake area while awaiting his sentence. There, he saw his friends from the streets come in day in and day out.

"At first, it was funny but within three weeks, I was to the point where I couldn't laugh with them nor laugh at them because that was me," Gishie said. "If I would have never gotten that felony charge, I would never have been able to see it."

He convinced Hanneman to let him try Exodus again not to avoid prison but to see what the program had to offer. While he was in the program, his mother died from cirrhosis of the liver. At the funeral, his grieving father urged him to choose treatment over prison.

"All these years, I drank," his father told him. "The only thing it ever brought me was losing your mom."

His father died on Jan. 2, 2015 and on Jan 7, 2015, Gishie graduated from the Exodus program.

He had one relapse that almost killed him in April 2015. He has not touched a drop of alcohol since. He said he is grateful for Exodus, DUI/Drug Court and his family, who took him so he could complete his probation.

"I'm sober and I'm grateful to be alive," he said, citing in particular the support of his Aunt Bessie and her daughters Georgiana and Letitia.  "An alcoholic like me, I don't really think too far ahead. I just worry about one day, the here and now. That's what keeps me sober. It was basically letting go and accepting life on life's terms."

The reporter can be reached at or 556-2261.

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