Randell Sam is a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. I met Randell while spending some time with the Water Protectors near Palisade, Minnesota. After a brief introduction in Ojibwe, Randell shared some of his history with alcohol and drug addiction. After years of using, he found the true meaning behind his Anishinabe name, which is, “I Am The Walking Light.” Randell plays an important role in the recovery movement in his community, fighting the opioid epidemic. Through living honestly and practicing truth, love, and humility, he’s able to continue connecting and supporting others to stay sober. He’s found his life’s calling, sharing that he recovered loudly so addicts don’t have to die quietly.
“My government name is Randell Sam. I am a member of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe here in Minnesota. I am part of a recovery movement in my community to help fight the opioid pandemic. It’s a battle and we fight it every day. And myself—as a recovering 35 year alcoholic, five years in addiction—I am a miracle, walking life story that I’m able to sit here today.
I faced death three times. You know, I flatlined three times. To be able to sit here today, I’m grateful. A lot of people from my community who are fighting the same fight I am, we all had to bottom out to find out our purpose here on this earth.
Coming into recovery, some religions say being born again. It’s a new experience in life today to be able to be grateful for little things and enjoy life every day. I live my life 24 hours a day. I’m part of Narcotics Anonymous, Wellbriety Alcoholics Anonymous, a lot of support groups that carry me. And through those recovery groups, I’ve been able to, I’ll say, make a new family.
My family, a lot of ’em, 90% of them are active addiction, active alcoholism. So I had to make the sacrifice of stepping aside from them and taking my own route. I call it sacrifice. You know, I had to sacrifice them to be able to live today.
And what I know today is that self-sacrifice is loving myself. It’s a part of being selfish. Now, I’m free to give away what I got, what was freely so given to me because it wasn’t my family or who I thought were my friends, it was other addicts that saved me in the beginning. It was people I’ve never met before, just showed up, knocking at my door saying, “Hey, we’re here to help.”
And it took me a while because, let me say, my pride, my ego—I’ve been to prison three times. I’ve done about 16 years behind bars—wouldn’t allow me to accept that help. But you know what, these guys just kept showing up, showing up every day, picking me up at night, taking me out, doing fun things, which was little things just like having pizza, going to hit a AA or NA meeting.
And I started to realize that, hey, man, when I met a couple gentlemen that were so fired up about life that were so happy to be sober and clean and in recovery…you know, I hate to say just sober, because sober is easy. Dang sober is what’s tough. Living in recovery, learning how to better yourself every day, is what I do.
It took me a little while, because when somebody used to ask me, “Hey, are you okay?” Man, that used to bug me. “Yeah, I’m fine. What do you want to know for? Why are you so interested in me?” Now today, I realize that all they do is care. So, as I grew in the program, I started to find myself asking, “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
In the beginning of my recovery, I gave up everything. I used to sell drugs. I used to do drugs. I sold drugs just so I could gamble and do drugs. You know, when I decided to sober up, I was 105 pounds three years ago. I was dead.
My Anishinabe name means I am the light, I am the walking light. And when I was given that name a while back, I was still an active alcoholic. And I didn’t really understand it. I wanted a different name.
But now I look at it this way. The light. I can see the significance in that today because I lead by example. You know, I sobered up. I mean, I recovered in the community where I was once ill. A lot of people can’t do that. A lot of people gotta leave. But my creator’s thing, I wound up right back in my house where I was sick after I got out of treatment.
But I just kept going. I kept pushing because I had to do something if I wanted to live today. In native culture, there’s no word for hell. You know, if you don’t pass, if you don’t go to the happy hunting grounds, they say your spirit stays here and just wanders. You don’t go to hell. You stay here. And that’s when you might get bothered once in a while. And that’s that spirit just looking for attention. That’s when we’ll offer it food or tobacco, or we’ll sage, just to help the spirit out. You know, acknowledge him, feed him, send him on his way.
So when I’m around my community today, when I see people that are still walking, lost, sick, you know, doing the “I’m high dance” or whatever, I don’t shame them because I know what it’s like to be doing that. Because that was me a few years ago. You know, I just crossed over three years of recovery about a month ago. And so when I see them out there like that, I consider them lost. Lost spirits.
And it takes somebody like me, who has been in that hole, who knows how to jump in that hole and help them pull ’em out of that hole. When I was that way, I was hopeless. I was angry to be alive. And a lot of my community around me, especially in Mille Lacs…the Mille Lacs tribal police had their powers pulled. They didn’t have the power to arrest anymore. And my community just went crazy. Drugs moved in.
During them two years, I lost 40 friends and family due to overdoses. Forty. That was while I was still using. So since then, that number has grown. We are burying about four or five…it depends, you know, it varies…we’re having a funeral like once a week, for somebody in my community that ODs and the grief…I know everybody in my community has been affected by this opiate pandemic, some way or another.
It came to a point about six months ago where I was questioning my faith. Because I have turned my, my will and my life over to Creator. My godfather told me that I’m here to help people when he gave me my name.
I lost a very close friend of mine, a friend of mine that helped me in the beginning to get on my own feet. Literally, because I was in a wheelchair. I was 105 [pounds] and I didn’t even have the power to walk. And she helped me. And when she passed from an overdose—I remember when I heard that I was in my kitchen—and I was just looking up like, if I’m here to help people—and I was questioning my higher power—then why do you keep taking them before I can do my work? It made me feel like I was losing a battle, and it really affected me inside. So I did some reaching out. I had to find a solution to what I was going through. And I come to terms that I’m not powerless over my addiction only, but I am powerless over others’.
You know, all I can do is do my best and show people that recovery is possible. Because I know nobody could tell me over 30, 35 years that I had a problem until I told myself I have a problem. And unfortunately today, with the power of Fentanyl, a lot of people don’t get that choice. You know, in the program that I work with, Narcotics Anonymous, they say jails, institutions and death. And I believe that. But to me, you are lucky if you get to go to an institution or jail.
In that time when I’d seen all my friends dying, and I’m sitting there 105 pounds and hopeless, I wanted to be one of them. You know, I used to think the world would be a better place without me. My kids could collect social security. I wanted to be one of them, but I didn’t have the courage myself. I was too chicken to, you know, push that needle all the way in when I knew it was gonna be too much. I was an IV user.
So, it came to the point…you know, I used to say, “F my life.” Then March 17th, 2018, I woke up that morning and I was like, “Am I really trying to live my life?” And I was like, “No, I’m not.” And I stayed home for three days. And I detoxed by myself. And it was rough. It was really rough.
The third day, I knew I wasn’t gonna make it. I reached out to my cousin, you know, through social media. I was watching her saying, “I got 30 days, 45 days, 90 days.” And I reached out to her and I said, “How do you do it?” And she wrote me back two words. It’s a group that started in Mille Lacs. She wrote me back, “Sober Squad.”
And there comes my ego again. I’m not calling those guys. Nope, nope, nope. And so she messaged one of them for me. His name was Colin Cash. He showed up at my door 15 minutes later, like, “Hey, how you doing, man?” He just came checking on me. He goes, “I’ll pick you up tonight.” I said, “Oh, okay.” And he showed up. The next night, he showed up again. The next night, showed up again.
I had the process going of getting into treatment. A native run treatment center called Four Winds in Brainard. It took me a month and a half to get in that place, which is crazy. That’s a long, long time. But these guys, they kept me clean until I got in there.
So I went to treatment and I couldn’t find a halfway house outside the area that was close enough because I got children where I live. I didn’t want to be too far away. So that’s how I wound up right back at my house. And I remember when I got home from treatment that day, and I sat down on my couch and I just looked around and I was like, “Man, I’m right back where I started from.” But I didn’t just sit there. I got my ass up. I went, found Sober Squad and started hanging out with them.
And I wasn’t really open yet. They traveled all over Minnesota, different reservations, sharing their experience, strength, and hope. I was just tagging along until, I think I was only like 90 days in the program. When I went with them to sing, they were like, “Here, we got Randell Sam, wants to come up and share.” And I was like, “What??” And I got up and all I did was I shared a little bit—because I was able to walk, then. My body healed enough—I’m diabetic. My feet were trashed. They smelled like garbage and they were rotten and falling apart. I got up there and I just shared about how I wheeled my wheelchair into Four Winds. I walked out with a cane, and two weeks later, I threw that cane away. I was ready to go again.
When I got up there and shared my story in front of that group—there’s like 300 people there—and the recognition I got. The “Yay,” the “You’re awesome, man.” That really lifted me up. Because me being born on a reservation to an alcoholic family, you know, that puts my chances of succeeding like way down here. There’s a lot of things behind that, you know?
So here I am down here. And I lived my life down here thinking this was the normal. This is how it is. You know, drink for a while, party for a while, go to jail, heal up, get out and do this again. That’s how I lived my life for 35 years. I never went to treatment because I always just went and did my jail time. I went and did my prison time.
I never asked for treatment, because I wasn’t gonna accept it anyway. And I’ll tell you something. When you start to believe in yourself, you raise your bar a little bit.
Somebody asked me one time, “How do I start?” All I told him was, “You gotta be honest with yourself.” That guy just celebrated a year and a half in recovery. And he did it. He’s still doing it. He works for a treatment center now. It’s a year and a half [and] I’m really proud of him.
When you start to believe in yourself, you raise your bar up here, and then when you start telling yourself, “You got this,” when you start to believe in your higher powers, you raise your bar even more. But I’ll tell you what, man. When you get a group of people behind you saying, “Yes, you got this, you can do this,” you go out the roof.
So I do a lot of public speaking. I’ve taken some motivational courses with James Anderson. Have you heard of Famous Dave’s Barbecue? His son James is a motivational speaker. He came to our res and did Leadership from the Heart and Recipes for Success. I highly recommend this if you want to share your story. Because in order to pass Leadership from the Heart, you gotta really know what humility is. And you gotta really put yourself out there 150%.
I was about a year and a half into the program—a little over a year—when I took this training. And my legs were still wobbly, but I was able to walk and you gotta run out there and say, “Yeah!” “Woo!” And you gotta make a huge entrance. You know, how to catch the crowd and everything. When I tried to do that, when I went running out there, I fell down. And I started getting myself up and I was ashamed that I fell down.
But that group cheering for me, like, “Come on, Randell, you got this.” Man, I got right back up and I gave it 150%. And I still passed. If you don’t put all of it into it, he’s not gonna let you pass that. You gotta keep doing it and doing it and doing it.
I had my son there with me for a night during that training. He came, stayed with me at the hotel. And my son was three at the time. And the year before that, when I was in my wheelchair, he was at my house, visiting me for the day. He took off running to the road. And when I got out of my chair and tried to catch him, I fell down again. I couldn’t even catch him. I’m glad a car wasn’t coming because it would’ve hit him.
So that night, when we were at that training, when my son was visiting me, he started running down the hallway at that hotel. And just something clicked in my mind. It was like, “I’m gonna catch him.” And I took off running with him and I caught him, and then I passed him.
That’s when I knew I got this. I’m going again. I just went through surgery and my feet are completely healed. Now I gotta start working out my legs again because I’ve been babying them for so long. Tomorrow I gotta go to a recovery walk down in St. Cloud, three and a half miles. I’m gonna try to run it. I’m not gonna make it too long, but I’m gonna try.”
“Through Covid I started Zoom, it’s called Zooming Towards Recovery. It started going nationwide. Natives from everywhere. We’re hearing about this NA group of Natives in Recovery. And people started showing up from California, Canada, North Carolina, Alaska, Ireland, and they started showing up on this meeting. And, that’s what I do. You know, I go around and I share some light with everybody. You know, here’s some sunshine for you. Here’s some sunshine for you.
And I give away what was so freely given to me because that’s how I got it. It’s a gift, man. It’s a gift. And not everybody recovers so loudly like I do. I found something I’m good at. I found something I love in life and it took my rock bottom for me to figure out who I really am. I practice honestly. I practice truth, you know, love, humility, the seven teachings, if you’re familiar with that. And it just makes a life a lot easier. My main one is acceptance.
You know, I can’t change everything around me. All I can do is focus on this. And that attracts people. And what I do, it’s like nothing special. It’s just my way of trying to give back. It’s my way of trying to help my communities, other reservations.
When that phone call rings, I answered whether it’s three or four in the morning. Because I know if I don’t answer that phone, whoever’s calling could go use. I really put myself out there. I sat on a prison call earlier. The guy in prison, who made a mistake, was trying to get his sentence reduced. And I had to talk to a judge like, “Hey, you know, I only met this guy a few times, but he tells me he has a desire to stay sober.”
And I know addicts deserve a second chance. We gotta give him that chance. Now, some might burn their ships and run outta chances. But you know, hey, give this guy a shot. And they didn’t come up with the decision today, but that’s the support they need. So when this guy’s in there, he knows that there’s somebody out there waiting for him when he gets out that he can call, that he can rely on. I got resources all over the state of Minnesota to North Dakota all over the place where if somebody’s struggling, I can make a phone call and help that person out.
And I’ll tell you what, man. It gets a little tiring. Really tiring. But doing this and doing stuff to focus on myself to help myself at the same time, I’m built for this. I can handle it.
I ask my creator, every day when I wake up—five o’clock, no matter what time I go to sleep—I wake up in the mornings and I ask him for strength to live another day, to do this another day. But with all the loss in my community, my community is grieving. I do my best to support my community, to love my community. This opioid pandemic is still killing us off. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. Too quickly. Too many young people. And I’m trying to put a stop to that.
Y-A-N-A. You are not alone. I used to think there is nobody out there that had it as bad as me until I came into the room of recovery. My story’s the same as everybody. What it was like, what happened and what it’s like now. Everybody has their rock bottom. Some might not be as bad as mine, some may be worse, but everybody’s rock bottom is when they decide to stop digging.
And one thing I like about recovery is we are all equal. You know, they say we don’t care how much you had, how little you had, who your connections were and stuff like that. All I care about is what you wanna do about your problem and how I can help.
Reach out. There are people in recovery everywhere. Find a local NA club, AA club or medicine man, however way you want to recover. There are plenty of ways to recover. I practice my culture and I go to Narcotics Anonymous because there, each member is equal. There I find crazy people just like myself, who love to have fun, who are sober.
There are a lot of conventions, a lot of camp outs going on out there this summer. And I’m already signed up for three of them. I’m already signed up for a trip to Newtown, North Dakota. What it is, connection is the opposite of addiction. So when I’m going to these places, you know, I can be with a crew of friends, but the second I get there, I’m like, “Bye, friends.” I’m out there making new friends because there’s 24 million people in recovery that I just haven’t met yet.
When you meet these people and you make an impression on them and you’re fellow addicts and everything like that, it’s just great. Then you see that newcomer walking in the door, unsure, scared. That’s where I focus my attention. Like, “Hey, what’s up man? It’s good to see you, man.” Because that’s how it was when I came in. You know, everybody’s like, “Man, it’s good to see you. You’re looking great!” And I just knew I wasn’t looking great. It made me uncomfortable for a while, but then I started to look forward to that welcome greeting. And that’s what I do when I see newcomers coming in the door today. Especially when I see my family come in, man, I am just so grateful that they’re there and they have the desire. Because I know myself inside every addict—everybody out there struggling—there’s a little voice in their head that says, “there’s a better way.”
There’s a better way to life.
I always had [that voice.] It took me a while to finally listen. Took me 35 years to finally listen to that. But I am grateful for all my struggles. I don’t regret my past. My past made me who I am today. What I do with that past today is I use that as knowledge of what not to do today. I use my mistakes as my fire today. I know what it’s like. I know that way of thinking isn’t gonna get me to where I want to be today.
I suffered from the disease of addiction, which isn’t just alcohol and drugs, it’s everything. I’m doing this because this recording or this story might touch somebody out there when this is published. Somebody might hear that I’m Randell Sam. I recover very loudly. So addicts don’t have to die quietly, you know?
I know through the groups, they say it’s anonymous, like, let’s keep it secret. I do. When I go to the groups, what happens in that group stays in that group. But the second I walk out of that meeting, I’m like, “Woo! I’m out here, man, I’m sober! Let’s go and have some fun. You guys wanna go eat some ice cream? Let’s go get some donuts. Let’s go get some coffee.” It’s the fellowship of recovery which makes people comfortable. The fellowship. Just hanging around other addicts. Like war veterans. War veterans feel comfortable around each other because they know, they’ve seen the same stuff together. They can relate.
I am comfortable when I’m in a room full of addicts and you see the hope, you see all those miracles walking around. They say, don’t quit until the miracle happens. I don’t know if I have, because I’ve witnessed so many miracles in my recovery time so far, I don’t even care if I see mine. It could just be somebody getting their kids back. It could be somebody getting a license, somebody getting a little part-time job. Just those little baby steps that they take to become a better human being in life is a miracle because I know what it’s like to be in hell.
You know, I threw in the towel. I was throwing in that towel daily. Man, I’m tired of this. Let me go be in the sky. Lemme go be with my loved ones that have passed. My creator kept throwing that towel back. No, I’m not taking you yet. And you know, I’m glad that he did because today I can enjoy life and be happy.
I love this, man. There’s no other way. I am learning to live life on life’s terms. Whatever test Creator gives me, I do my best to pass. I don’t pass all the time. I am not perfect. I struggle just like everybody else. But by turning it over, by having support in my circle, I can get through every day, sober. Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and whatever happened today, I’ll let go, start a new day. I don’t carry today’s garbage into tomorrow. That gets too heavy.”
-Have you struggled with addiction? Do you know someone who has?
-When have you reached your rock bottom?
-Who was there to help you?
-When have you been there to help someone else?
-Randell says he is “recovering out loud so that others don’t have to struggle in silence.” Talk about ways you could be a role model.
-He also says he had to realize that he was powerless to change someone else’s outcome. When have you seen that to be true?
-How do you help without losing yourself?
-Have you ever thrown in the towel? What kept you going?
-What is the best decision you have ever made?