America’s silent epidemic: How the U.S. fails to address opioid addiction in indigenous communities

JAMIECHEN / AGGIE

Local governments must work with Native Americans to set up rehabilitation programs that honor tribal traditions and tackle the opioid crisis

Lost in much of today’s rhetoric about America’s opioid epidemic is an important discussion on one demographic group that has been hit the hardest — Native Americans.

While a great deal of attention has been paid to just how hard the epidemic has struck middle America’s working class, little mainstream dialogue has addressed the direct concerns of the Native American community. Statistically speaking, this demographic has been among the most deeply affected. American Indians/Alaskan Natives saw a 519 percent increase in overdose deaths from 1999 to 2015, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control report. Deaths related to heroin alone increased 236 percent among Natives from 2010 to 2014.

Given the delicate demographic nature of many Native American tribes, this crisis is having disproportionately profound effects upon their communities. With many tribal communities being particularly small in size, federal funding is short to come by and is progressively being directed towards increased law enforcement and away from social services. Additionally, the compact, insular nature of many of these societies means that, when one family is struck with substance abuse, oftentimes the whole community is directly affected.

Meanwhile, drug abuse continues and these communities’ children remain the most impacted. Overdose deaths are most prevalent among those aged 25 to 34, forcing many children into foster care. According to the Cherokee Nation’s deputy general Chrissi Ross Nimmo, so many Cherokee children are being born with drug dependency and there are not enough members in the community to care for them while their parents recover. This consequently forces them to put these children into foster care by the non-Cherokee. The crisis is now no longer just physical, but also culturally existential. Jonathan Nez, Vice President of the Navajo Nation, warns that, if further steps are not taken to curtail opioid abuse in his community,  “a generation of children are going to grow up without their parents.”

Tackling opioid abuse in this community will require a series of unique solutions that can both immediately address drug dependency as well as confront the underlying issues that drive people towards abuse. One strategy utilized by the Yurok tribe of Northern California is their Wellness Court, a joint program with the Superior Courts of Del Norte and Humboldt counties that addresses cases related to substance abuse among tribal members. The program allows, largely on a case-by-case basis, members of the Yurok tribe to undergo tribal rehabilitation programs instead of normal entry into the criminal justice system. More recently, the Yurok tribe has set up “wellness villages,” which are sober houses that combine modern rehabilitation techniques with elements of traditional Yurok culture to help reintegrate former addicts into society.

Local governments with substantial indigenous communities affected by the opioid crisis should seek to establish this type of formal relationship with their constituents. Joint rehabilitation programs like the Wellness Court allow local law enforcement to help combat substance abuse in a manner that both respects tribal tradition and autonomy while also preventing many Native Americans from becoming caught up in America’s problematic criminal justice system. Additionally, federal funding aimed at combating the drug abuse in the indigenous community should increasingly be allocated towards tribal-specific approaches at rehabilitation and not just towards standard, cut-and-dry attempts at drug enforcement.

Native Americans are a foundation of this country, whose spirits are filled with a long and complex history that spans the continental U.S. and transcends our country’s own colonial history. As Americans, we owe it to them that their voices are heard and that their traditions are able to continue well into the future.

 

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.