Underscore News/Report for America

Bobbie Hill wanted to offer encouragement to people struggling with something she understood intimately. But she couldn’t find greeting cards geared specifically toward people battling addiction and on their road to recovery. That’s when her business, Changes, was born.

“I could not find cards in regular stores, or really anywhere, where I could get a card that said, ‘Hang in there. You don't need to relapse. You got this,’” she said.

Hill, Apsáalooke (Crow) and a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, found that frustrating. She said those difficult moments when people need encouraging words the most.

“When you are in rehab, it's easy,” Hill said. “Everybody's doing the same thing. It's when you come out in the real world, that's when the work begins. That's where all the challenges are. And if we're not supporting people during that time, it's inevitable that they will relapse.”

In 2015, Hill created Changes with two drawings and a $50 donation. Today, Hill has storage totes filled with thousands of cards holding encouraging messages to stay clean and sober.

The 56 year-old grandmother of four, wanted to make a difference and help others stay on their road to recovery with positive encouragement and love.

“Honestly, that's my mission statement,” Hill said. “Empowering people through positive change. That’s Changes.”

Hill says she has witnessed the impact just one simple card can have, and how such a gesture can aid in helping people stay mentally strong and empower them to keep going forward on their journey to sobriety. She says seeing that happen in real time is what pushes her to keep moving forward.

“I hope to be bigger than Hallmark one day,” Hill said.

Bobbie Hill had trouble finding cards for people struggling with addiction, so she asked her daughter Falconn Burkett, to help bring her ideas to life. (Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report for America)

From Chaos to Clean and Sober

Hill says alcohol was a part of her life from a young age. She says it was a choice that was made for her as a toddler, when her father started putting alcohol on her gums.

“I always remember alcohol being a part of my life,” Hill said.

Hill said she was raised in chaos. She said the only way she knew to cope was by using drugs and alcohol.

Predisposition to addiction and alcoholism is linked to generational trauma caused by colonialism, according to Jerrod Murray, executive director of Painted Horse Recovery, an all-Native run group that provides addiction recovery support. Murray said generations of cultural genocide enacted by the U.S. government with the goal of erasing Indigenous people by stripping them of their traditions and assimilating them to western culture has left lasting impacts.

Addiction is one of them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 140,000 people die from alcohol use each year in the United States. In Oregon, more than 2,000 people die from alcohol-attributable causes annually, according to the Oregon Health Authority. A 2017 study of death certificate data highlighted the continued impacts of mental health and substance use disorders among Native Americans, with premature deaths increasing each yearfrom 1999 to 2014, largely due to liver disease, suicides and injuries.

“If you look at the numbers, Natives are highest in suicide rates, Natives are highest in alcoholism and Natives are highest in overdoses,” Murray said. “Having a place where they can be safe, feel safe and see people like them engage in culture, it really gives them a hope and opportunity to stay clean.”

Murray, an Anishinaabe citizen from the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Rocky Boy, Montana, has been in active recovery for a decade, an accomplishment he credits to his culture.

In 2020, during a sweat lodge ceremony, Murray had the idea to create a recovery community rooted in Indigenous cultural practices. Ten months later, Painted Horse Recovery opened its doors.

“If it wasn't for my connection to culture, and my connection to the Ojibwe language, I would not be where I'm at today,” he said.

Bobbie Hill poses for her portrait at a park in downtown Gresham. (Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report for America)

Hill found her way to lasting recovery after a 2010 car wreck that nearly took her life. She was stuck in a wheelchair for months with multiple broken bones. With the help of physical therapy, she taught herself how to walk again. After a year of healing her body, Hill knew it was time to heal her spirit.

It was a turning point in Hill’s life.

She discovered Northwest Indian Treatment Center (NWITC), a facility operated by the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state. NWITC specializes in unresolved trauma and grief related to chronic relapse patterns, and works primarily with Native American clients from Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

The center’s spiritual name is “D3WXbi Palil” meaning “Returning from the Dark, Deep Waters to the Light.” Rooted in cultural activities as well as traditional and religious ceremonies, NWITC reports a success rate of more than 60 percent for clients one year after completing treatment.

“I went to this treatment center, and I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is gonna be the same thing. I'm going to go through the motions and still be getting high, just the same old routine replaying itself out,” Hill said.

Her mindset changed, in part due to an exercise by staff member Mike Tisdale. He asked Hill to write down everything from her life that she was angry about. She laughed him off, but he was serious.

“He was like, ‘No, from the very first time you can remember, I want you to go write down everything that ever happened to you in your life,” she continued. “And then he said, ‘I want you to come back to me, and I don't want just a couple sentences either.’”

Several days and ten pages later, Hill shared what she had written. Tisdale then asked her to read what she wrote aloud numerous times. Hill said that helped her recognize traumas she had never dealt with.

“At that moment, that's when I started to grow again, that's when the healing began,” Hill said. “Instead of me just stuffing all this crap I had been through throughout my life, I could actually get rid of it and stop carrying all that bullshit.”

It was in a facility created by Native people, for Native people, interwoven with cultural and spiritual practices, that Hill was able to unpack the trauma she has endured, accept it and move forward with her spiritual healing journey. She was finally ready to live her life.

Hill and Murray each have over a decade of sobriety. And like Murray, Hill credits her culture for helping her stay clean, especially ceremony and the tools she learned at D3WXbi Palil.

“The solution is in the culture,” Murray said.

Falconn Burkett, Muscogee Creek and Grand Ronde, regularly draws in her sketch book. She contributes art to her mother's greeting card business. (Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report for America)

Creating Changes

At first, Hill struggled with job security and experienced homelessness. But being free from active addiction made a huge difference. She reunited with her youngest daughter, Falconn Burkett, and the pair rebuilt their relationship. When Hill secured housing, Burkett moved in.

As a way to help with her own sobriety, Hill found joy in volunteering and helping others run their small businesses, whether that meant making fry bread for friends or vending for elders in the community.

Hill’s dear friend, Katherine Quartz, Northern Paiute, was a well known artist and flutist. Quartz and Hill traveled to powwows, treatment facilities and other events, selling art and jewelry.

Hill has always had the gift of gab, and would draw people into their table with her magnetic energy. She helped Quartz sell artwork and jewelry for years. Hill’s kindness and generosity continued as she helped care for Quartz during prolonged illness.

“Even in mom's addiction, she's always been a really kind, caring, loving person who could walk into a room knowing nobody, and at least walk out with five friends,” Burkett said.

In a meeting at the Native American Rehabilitation Association, Hill and Quartz had a discussion about what Hill wanted to do with her life. She said she wanted to start her own greeting card business, but didn’t know where to start. She did not consider herself an artist, but she knew she had the skill of connecting with people and helping them feel important and loved.

Quartz donated two pieces of artwork, showed her how to get the cards printed and gave Hill $50 to get started. Quartz also offered a portion of her table for Hill to sell her cards until she could do it on her own.

Hill then invested the money she earned into creating more cards and was off to the first powwow she could find, selling cards for $3 each, or two for $5.

“I sold enough cards to make $75,” Hill said. “I took that $75, with the same two pieces of artwork and went and got more cards made.”

After selling at numerous powwows and other events, Hill realized she needed more artwork. Not confident in her own abilities, she asked others if they would donate to her cause. She offered a deal to the Native artists she met while traveling: she would buy their art supplies if they would make art for her cards.

“We would barter because they believe in what I'm doing,” Hill said.

As her collection of cards expanded, her business kept growing. Soon, Hill realized that all the art on her cards was donated by Native American artists.

“It's not that I had ever planned on my artwork being done by only Native Americans,” Hill said. “They're just the only people who actually gifted me cards. Because I've asked lots of artists, and the only people who've ever come through are Native people.”

Bobbie Hill holds one of her daughter Cerise Palmanteer's most recent drawings, a portrait of her sister, who struggles with sobriety, wearing a warbonnet. (Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report For America)

Cerise Palmanteer, Yakima and Colville, is art teacher who works with youth in central Oregon and one of the artists who gifts Hill with artwork. She is also Hill’s adopted daughter.

One of the most recent drawings Palmanteer created for Hill was a portrait of her sister, who is struggling with her own sobriety. Palmanteer drew her sister wearing a warbonnet.

When she showed her sister the drawing, she asked why Palmanteer decided to draw her that way.

“Warriors struggle too,” Palmanteer told her sister.

Her sister felt defeated and stuck in her battle with addiction, Palmanteer said, and didn’t see herself as being worthy of wearing a warbonnet.

“Every time I see that card, I think about that,” Palmanteer said. “For my sister to be able to see that card, and to see herself in that way, has been a big part of making change in her life.”

People Over Profit

Nearly eleven years ago, Hill made a decision that changed her life forever, and it has been almost eight years since she made it a mission to improve the lives of others with her cards.

The majority of Hill’s profits go directly back into the business, to buy materials, pay vending fees, or cover traveling costs. Hill donates a portion of sales from two specific cards to two artists. The first is a non-Native woman who donated her land for Indigenous people to have access to ceremony and sweat lodge. The second is Hill’s oldest granddaughter.

“Our profit isn't monetary,” Hill said. “Our profit is in the people.”

Lead image: Bobbi Hill created Changes out of necessity, because she said she could not find greeting cards geared specifically toward people battling addiction and their road to recovery. Today, she produces cards featuring artwork from two dozen Native American artists who believe in her mission. (Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report For America)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....