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Henu' Wellness Court offers different path for recovery


As more and more communities deal with substance abuse issues, new tactics and new partnerships are being found to help those communities. Friday saw the grand opening of the Henu’ Community Wellness Court, which is a partnership between the state of Alaska and the Kenaitze Inidian Tribe.

Kimberley Sweet is chief judge of the Kenaitze Tribal Court. She shared a story at the grand opening of the court Friday afternoon about a figure known to Dena’ina people as Nant’ina, a creature that would lurk near villages, sometimes stealing children and putting fear in the hearts and minds of the villagers. The legend of Nant’ina represents a different threat today — that of substance abuse.


“Today, the appearance of our land has changed — roads, malls, asphalt and concrete. Nant’ina has changed, too. No longer an outcast, he is found in our homes, the places we go for companionship, our family gatherings. His smell has become accepted, yet it remains distinct — a clear warning of danger, we are still taken in the fog, a deadly fog of clouded judgment in which we become directionless, confused and, for many, eventually lost.”


The Henu’ Community Wellness Court offers an alternative to the standard route through the criminal justice system for people who face legal trouble due to substance abuse.


Community and wellness are two of the main pillars. The idea is that in working with people on an individual level, with input and support from the broader community, the root causes of drug use can be addressed and possibly reversed.


It’s a model that’s not exactly new, but not exactly widespread yet, either. Judge Korey Wahwassuck is a district court judge in the state of Minnesota. She helped organize the first joint-jurisdiction wellness court, which brings the tribal and state courts together, back in 2007.


She says the group that worked on the plan for the wellness court worked passionately on a shared cause.


“The team came together with the common goal of combating the devastating effects of drug and alcohol abuse. But in the process, they created a shared path toward wellness and healing all people, recognizing that addiction and hopelessness know no jurisdictional boundaries. They shared a desire to work together as equals. They recognized and celebrated the differences between the state court and the tribal court, bringing together the tools unique to each system, infusing tradition and culture and respect for the land that we all share. They saw the power of healing that flows from that knowledge, coupled with close supervision, treatment and accountability.”


The Henu’ Community Wellness Court began hearing cases earlier this year. The program that court participants must go through takes about a year and a half. There’s room for about 20 participants at a time, and once accepted into the program, it’s all inclusive, with housing, transportation, clothing, pretty much everything taken care of, so all the focus can be on recovery and successful completion.