Blanket Toss Medicine

May 1, 2018

It’s no secret that alcohol and drugs are a problem plaguing many communities around the nation. The subject is painful and difficult. At this year’s Native Youth Olympics, KYUK’s Johanna Eurich found inspiration from one person who uses an Alaska Native tradition to demonstrate the impacts of substance abuse on a community, and how to invite people who have fallen into the haze of alcohol and drugs back. She brings us this portrait of the scene.

It’s not a drum, but it fills the room. Standing close to it exposes my body to a vibration that touches every cell. It is an Inupiaq blanket made out of skins sewn into a large circle, with rope handles on the edges. Normally it’s used to toss people into the air at Nulukatuk, which celebrates the blessing that whales bring to Arctic coastal towns. 

A blanket toss at the 2018 Native Youth Olympics
Credit KYUK

But now, no one is standing in the middle of the blanket. Instead, Gregory Nothstein, who grew up in Wales, Alaska, is using this traditional object to teach people about both the nature of community, and how it can be used for sobriety. 

This lesson began more than 20 years ago, when Nothstein, who had made a blanket, saw new meaning in the blanket toss. 

“In order to have a blanket toss, you have to have a community of pullers, which represents the community. You need everyone cooperating and working together. When you grab the blanket, that represents commitment. And when you have someone willing to be tossed and get on the blanket, there’s an element of trust. So everyone is pulling together for a common purpose, and that’s a great metaphor.” 

Nothstein leads blanket tosses as part of the annual Native Youth Olympics.

After tossing about a dozen young men and women into the air this year, he took a moment to conduct a ceremony with those hanging onto the now empty blanket. When they leaned out to tighten the blanket and then loosened it a bit, in a rhythm, a deep tone sounded, filling the space with a steady beat. 

“The sound is steady when it’s healthy, when its drug free,” Nothstein demonstrated. “If I tap you on the shoulder, I’m going to act like the influence of peer pressure and agree to use drugs, and you’re going to hear what happens to your heartbeat and the community. Let go if I touched you.”

The steady rhythm degenerates to a flapping sound. 

“This is what happens to our community when we let alcohol and drug abuse run rampant.”

Standing close to record the ceremony, I both heard and felt the sound. The feeling of the blanket flapping took me back to memories of being a child of alcoholics.

“You can’t shame anyone into coming back,” Nothstien said, continuing the ceremony by moving to the next step. “You have to invite them. So invite them.”

“Come back. Come back,” those still holding the blanket called out, and when those who had let go resumed their positions, the steady beating of the blanket resumed.

“This is your community,” Nothstien explained. “Keep it strong. Stay drug free.”

Afterwards he told me, “We all feel the energy drain of an uncle or a relative who’s no longer really with us in mind, body, and spirit because they’re struggling with some addiction."

Nothstien knows addiction; community helped him be sober. He also worked as the coordinator of the Alaska Federation of Natives Sobriety movement, and this ceremony is part of that work.