All text and audio copyright, 2015 by the Native American Development Center ©
Geno Declay: Hello, my name is Gene Ramon Declay, everybody knows me as Geno. I am White Mound Apache and Acoma […] from Arizona. I currently live in Bismarck, North Dakota, and myself along with my family have been here going on four years, in August it will be four years. I have two children, Preston who is six years old and Natalia who is two, I've attended United Tribes Technical College where I have received three AA degrees. I have an AA in digital media and I have an AA in graphic design, and in May I will be receiving another AA in fine arts. I'm currently in the bachelor program there as well and that's in business administration. For my two first AAs I graduated cum laude with honors. The entire semesters I have a cumulated GPA around 3.75, 3.8.
My career is I'm an artist, an acrylic artist. I'm also a hip hop performer or hip hop activist, and I have a small digital media business where we do anything from graphic design, print production, audio production, video production, web design, custom silkscreen.
Lorraine Davis: Wow, thank you. Okay. You mentioned you've been here for the last, going on four years, so where did you grow up in your childhood years and kind of leading up to your adult years?
Declay: My childhood years I grew up on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Northeastern Arizona and I graduated from there. So I pretty much was raised there my entire life. My mom attended school, where she got her RN degree and I spent some time with her in Flagstaff, Arizona, at Northern Arizona University. A majority of the time that she was in school I spent with my grandparents, pretty much raised me as a young child.
Davis: So in Flagstaff, because you mentioned you grew up in Northeast Arizona, is that with your grandparents then?
Declay: Yes, my grandparents. That's where my mom is from, she had a house there but she went off and went to school for just a little bit.
Davis: Growing up, can you share with us a little bit what that was like for you?
Declay: I really felt bad as a kid, because a lot of times my mom was gone. I didn't understand as a child that she was doing what she was doing to have a better life for myself and my brother. I think as a young child I probably felt abandoned, and also she was a single parent and I never really knew my father. At the same time, as an adult thinking back, I feel pretty fortunate to have been raised by my grandparents, they really taught me a lot, stuff that I didn't understand as a kid, but I think back now, I really appreciate the things they told me, the things that I was raised around. My grandfather was a very proud veteran of World War II, served in infantry and came back and worked for the tribe bureau land operations and had a ton of cattle.
I was just fortunate because I grew up in a nice place. My grandfather really had a nice yard, my grandmother was really into gardening and so was my grandfather, landscaping and just had a real beautiful yard. The home that they had started out as a little square one bedroom house, but through the years they built it up, kept continuing adding and it's a four bedroom house, two living rooms, dining room, kitchen. For me, it seemed like real comfortable.
Davis: And when you compare that, did you have other friends that might not have had it that nice? Did it seem that was common or ...
Declay: Yeah there was friends that, just like every reservation, some friends that their parents weren't doing too good. I remember having some friends from the neighborhood that had both their mom and dad and a lot of brothers and sisters and new vehicles every couple years and just different things like that, that I kind of missed out on too.
Davis: So there was a variety on both sides. So you were maybe somewhere in the middle.
Declay: Yeah I think I was probably somewhere in the middle.
Davis: Okay, so having that background, there's other stories that we've interviewed and some aren't as fortunate, some didn't even have security, stability, growing up. Would you say that that is probably one of the most valuable things?
Declay: Yeah, I think security, because also too, my grandfather really was traumatized by what he saw in World War II, I guess you would call it post-traumatic stress, which led to alcoholism and sometimes he would become violent and sometimes, I remember as a kid he would sit all of us down and just start talking while he was drinking and he would cry, and he would just tell stories of the things that he saw and friends that he lost and what happened. He didn't have counseling or anything like that so I think in his own way that was kind of his healing, just to at least tell somebody, and it was kind of sad, especially to think back and remember that stuff. It was just almost like two different people, when he was sober he was real kind loving man, had a nice house, worked and had cattle and was involved with traditions and active in the community, was a spiritual man, people would come to him for prayers, but at the same time too, the flip side his alcohol. And in the end that's what killed him was alcohol.
Davis: What age were you when you started witnessing his alcoholism?
Declay: I was pretty young, probably about four or five, all the way until my teen years and then as a young man coming back from the military and seeing the way that he was.
Davis: So during that time then it was really grandma probably that gave you that sense of security during those times.
Declay: Yes, during all that time my grandmother was the one that was always there, she was a really devout Christian, she loved the lord, she attended church and she always told me to pray, always told me to go to church and she stayed real strong through it all.
Davis: Did that teach you something about marriage?
Declay: Yeah. What I remember is when my grandfather passed away, in our tradition, right before the sun comes up with the morning star, before day they pretty much send them off on their journey, so in our way during the wake it's our last time to really say what we want, and I remember my grandmother saying in our language, you told us until death do us part, and she said in our language, just talking to my grandfather's body or whatever, it's just a strong marriage. My grandfather as well attended church all the time, even when he was in his conditions and alcoholism he always attended church, always made sure he was in church on Sunday and things like that. So their marriage to me was real strong, they got married before he went to war, he was real young, maybe 18, 17, and they stayed married until they were in their late 70s, and I know it was love too because just shortly after, like a year later, my grandmother passed away. I think it was just heartbreak.
Davis: That is so sacred, and I think that in the past it seemed like marriages stuck together, or they were more valued, the covenant of marriage was more valued than it is today, so it's not as common maybe. So you were taught really strong values, granted there was some things that you witnessed and things but those values always stay with you. What was it that brought you through that whole experience, because now we're talking all the way up until high school, can you share with us after high school what that experience was like? Just in your life.
Declay: I think if I could talk about one thing that my grandparents taught me, I think it would be prayer. Again as a young child I remember standing by my grandfather and him talking to me in Apache, saying listen, this is how you pray, this is who we pray to, and this is ... so I think they really taught me prayer and they really taught me to believe, and also to hard work you can have something better, not only for yourself but for you family as well. It's like my grandfather worked hard to have a nice yard, worked hard to have a nice home, the garden, the apple orchards and just everything.
So once I graduated and left into the military, that was one of the things that really stuck with me, also respect, to respect others, especially adults, especially those older than I am, and also to respect our traditions and our language and our culture, and I always heard […] [Apache 00:15:05], that means speak Apache, and they always used to say […] [Apache 00:15:11], because you're not a white person, you're Apache, speak Apache. I always remember that.
Davis: Because you mentioned your grandma was a strong Christian, what was that like, because you have a strong sense of culture and tradition at the same time you have strong Christianity in the home. Was it just intertwined?
Declay: My grandmother never really attended anything traditional; she was a dedicated Christian woman. My grandfather, on the other hand, comes from a long line of healers, comes from a long line of profits, his dad, which would be my great-grandfather, Jimmity Clay was a very respected elder in the Apache community, if I could compare to something today, he was a pediatrician, when kids or children, young people needed prayer, he was the one that he would see, and I've heard stories of healing young kids and I've heard that he was just a real loving young man, he loved children. So my grandfather comes from that background, traditionally, and it was taught to him, and I'm sure they told him as well to continue on these traditions, this is who we are. So he was involved with traditions but also attended church. So I don't know how he worked it out within himself, but he truly believed and loved his culture and tradition, but at the same time attended church and all that.
Davis: He really loved his wife.
Davis: And I think back then too, it was more strict about the Christians being able to participate in tradition, I think it was more strict back then, a lot of the different denominations were strict about that. SO during your adult life, was there struggle, was there something that you want to share that you experienced, that could of took you in a wrong path, had you not done something?
Declay: Yeah. I guess drugs and alcohol heavily affected my life for many years. I went into the military and never really attended any high school parties or anything like that, I went to like two parties, probably drank like twice, but in the military, being an infantry soldier in the army in panama, it seemed like that was the thing to do, macho men. We'd be out in the field for weeks, come back and party. And I always thought that I could quit whenever, and I just thought well I'm still young, I'm just having fun, when I'm out of the military, sure I'll quit drinking and sure I'll continue on with my life. I lied to myself, and alcohol totally consumed my life and I stayed drinking for many many years until I was just an alcoholic.
Everyday it got to the point where I would drink like a pint of Bacardi, a six pack of tall cans and that was just like in the morning, it was that bad. Jobs, I couldn't keep, bills and finances I couldn't keep up with, abandoned loved ones in my life, I felt chained. All my grandfather's kids, six children are all educated with bachelor degrees from big schools, UCLA, University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and they pushed education on me but to them I was just a drunk. A lot of times I felt shame, I shamed them, and that was real hard for me. That was something that was a hardship in my life growing up, especially like in my 20s and early early 30s, it was just all it was, alcohol had consumed my life. Thinking back, like I said, I can stop whenever. I'm thankful too that I'm a recovering alcoholic and I haven't drank in 11, 12 maybe 13 years and so I think back about that a lot. I think back about how would life be if I didn't drink, where would I be, what would I have become. That was one of the hardest things to go through, just that whole consumption of alcohol.
Davis: And all of the effects that come with it. Do you want to share with people who aren't familiar with what effects really come when you're an alcoholic?
Declay: Yeah, I can try. Some of the effects that I had to deal with as an alcoholic was just really feeling bad for myself all the time.
Davis: The shame.
Declay: Yeah, the shame. Walking with my head down, just the whole addiction, the addictive personality.
Davis: Loss of jobs, low self-esteem.
Declay: My finances were, my credit was real bad, lost family. I lost a lot of loved ones too, young friends. That part of alcohol still affects me because it still affects so many people from back home. We use a lot of real young people, real talented people, real smart people, and that's the future, they're no longer here because of alcohol. If I could think back, the majority of my friends and relatives too have been affected by alcohol one way or another in their life, and they all go through all the effects as well. With alcohol, even if you don't drink you still feel the effects of alcoholism because your loved ones that do. It's hard. In the early times, there was small pox, there was disease and things like that, the genocide, but I feel like now it's still genocide, it's still trying to get rid of who we are, but now it's through alcohol. Now it's through drugs. It's just the hardest thing.
Davis: And when you mentioned earlier about your low point, you mentioned 20, were you mid, late 20s?
Declay: Late 20s is when I was like okay I'm supposed to have stopped drinking by now, I should have a degree, I should have a job, just that whole timeline and it was just all it was just alcohol.
Davis: Did you feel like you were running out of time?
Declay: Yeah because I wasn't sure if I was going to wake up the next day. My grandfather passed away from alcohol when I was 26. I felt so bad, he was my father, my mentor, I really looked up to him, and when he passed unexpectedly I couldn't deal with it, I really couldn't, and I just dove deeper into alcohol, just to not have to deal with the hurt I felt inside. I really really felt bad. When I think about it today, I still feel bad. It wasn't the right choice to try to numb myself with alcohol but it was already there and it just kind of kicked it up some notches to just not even care anymore. For one whole year I drank so hard.
So in between all my drinking I would look back and do an inventory of my life as a kid to where I was at now and I wanted to see myself as older. I knew for a fact I didn't want to be an alcoholic my whole life, I knew that God didn't put me on this earth to just do that. I knew those two things. At that time I wanted to somehow honor my grandfather, to become something, something different, something that no one has ever done before. I have a lot of respect for educated people, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, but I wanted to do something different or be something different and I was always involved with music as a kid and as a teenager, so that's what I chose. Then I started making music, hip hop music, audio production, and that's how it started, was just like well I don't have anything this is all I have so I'm going to take this and do the best I can with it. That's all my music and everything started was to kind of do something different, I wanted to honor my grandfather. Doing the whole inventory it's just like I need to make a change somewhere.
Davis: What was the breakthrough, it's not like you just wake up and it's gone, the temptation isn't gone, there had to be something that you used, whether that's people or, how did you do it, how did you break through that?
Declay: It had been a year since my grandfather passed, I was helping my grandmother and the boys who were at the funeral and remembering what he taught us to grow corn, so the whole day I spent burning fields, hard work, it was just wanting to be there for my grandmother, but that night, I was still drinking, I went to a party, it was a party at my uncle's house so the younger ones of the family we would always go there and party and I got introduced to the most beautiful girl I've ever seen so that was the turnaround point for me.
So we're at the party and we start talking and it was kind of cold so I said little Mac I said are you cold and she said yeah and said do you want to go back to the car I got a jacket, so we did and we just ended up sitting in the car and talking all night, parked in my uncle's yard. Everybody was partying, laughing, people walking up and down, we were just young, but we talked all night, and we connected, we talked about what we wanted to do and what she wanted to do and what I wanted to do. So really she was my angel. The next day I really wanted to make a change, I really wanted to start bettering myself because ... I knew she was who I wanted to be with for the rest of my life and that's not going to happen if I'm drinking and doing these things, and she came like a year after, not even a year, so she pulled me out of my darkness, she pulled me out of my hurt and everything and she kind of made me feel real good again, made me feel happy. So if there's one thing I could say was the breakthrough, that would be meeting my wife Marianne.
And of course I stayed drinking for a while but it wasn't anywhere near, but it was kind of a tapering off, and many years later she kind of gave me the ultimatum like I'm gonna go to school, I'm tired of drinking, tired of living that life, I'm leaving, I have a place in Tucson, you're welcome to come with me, I want you to come with me, but that alcohol, that Geno, can't come. So she left and a couple weeks a month I chased her and went down with her, and we still struggled and we still had our hardships, but it was this kind of breaking down that whole alcoholism. I said I have to quit, I can't being doing just a little bit, it's either all or nothing and the next breakthrough for me was just falling on my knees and saying I can't do this by myself, no one can. […] [apache 00:33:04] means to really be sincere, […] like pity, have pity on me, I'm here, I want to quit, I want to change, I want a new life, and asking Jesus Christ to come into my life, and just knowing that I can't do this by myself, and fasting.
When I fasted I visually see myself chained up, I could visually see myself wearing, I guess you could say grave clothes, all deteriorated clothes, like I was dead, like I had been living a life not to its fullest. And when I made that change, when I accepted Jesus Christ in my life it was just like, took all those all clothes off me and put on the spiritual clothes. Then that's where it started and since that day I haven't had a drink of alcohol.
Davis: Wow. And that's been how many years?
Declay: I don't know, between 10 and 12 years.
Davis: Would you be willing to get involved in like a support group, we have a Native American support group.
Declay: Definitely would be involved because I've been there, I have. I feel like I can talk about it. I see a lot of my friends and relatives still like that, too many people, like I mentioned before we're losing a lot of loved ones to drugs and alcohol. It has to stop because we're like 3% of the population of this entire world, 3% that's not a whole lot to begin with and for us to be taken soon by alcoholism and drugs, it's not good.
Davis: We can't afford to.
Declay: We can't afford to, we need everybody on deck, we need everybody to contribute, we need everybody to be on top of their game, to be sober and to push forward, Because it can't be just a handful of us anymore, it has to be a lot of people. That's the million dollar question, how do we get there, because at the same time too, time is running out. So I would love to be a part of the support group.
Davis: That's be great, and I agree. I think it just starts with unifying, unity and just start having those conversations of how to create that.
Declay: Yeah and earlier we talked about alcoholism and its effects, and I think one of the ways that it's affected Indian country really seems to be like there's a lot of jealousy amongst our own people, a lot of envy and what happens is we end up being our worst enemy. It's almost to the point where we can't be happy for each other anymore, we can't be happy that someone has a job, we can't be happy that someone's educated or came home educated, is doing better for themselves. We should uplift, we should honor them, but it's not like that, it's like oh you're trying to be white or oh you think you're better than us, and that has to stop because we can't move forward unless we fully support each other and are there for each other. Just like how I've heard people say the honor of one is the honor of all, and that's the way that it should be, but it just isn't and how do we get past that, that whole jealousy, that envy, it sucks. I wish we could just be happy for each other, even our own family, even brothers and sisters, that's the worst thing. We need to be more supportive, we need to be more organized.
Davis: In unity. A lot of the things that you're saying is the same realization that I had came upon and it's the center, the Native American development center, I incorporated it because of that very vision of native Americans unifying for the betterment of our own people, because so many times I have seen native Americans, if they're doing something positive and they're leading in areas, but there doing something at a smaller scale, and the need is so great and so my hope is that we unify at a bigger level, not just Bismarck. We can start with the great plains area and bring it together, bringing that platform to talk about life. We have stages and platforms for spirituality, for government, excuse me not spirituality, for the government and for academics, but we don't have one just about life. If we could just come together in agreement that we all need help, and we have one creator, and not get caught up in what church you go to, how you practice your tradition or what tribe ... because that is Satan's tactics, Satan is at work again, he's winning in those ways, in those small battles that way.
If we could just bring our strength together through unity and agreeing that we honor god, just that alone, and then the love formulates, and then that desire to start helping each other, you come together, like you mentioned, in humility, willing to share some of the shameful things that you experienced only to help someone else. That's basically what we're doing here today, and so I thank you for sharing your story, it's private things and some people can't get themselves to share that and so that tells me that you really care about the Native American people and that you're willing to give back in this way. So I just want to say thank you and this is just the beginning, I believe, of helping Native American people. Thank you, Geno.
Declay: You're welcome.