$590 million opioid settlement ‘doesn’t seem like a lot’ to Native Americans

When Native American tribes announced they had reached a $590 million tentative settlement with Johnson & Johnson and other opioid distributors earlier this month, it was hailed as a historic victory for the native tribes, who had been ignored other class actions.

Natalee Kehaulani Bauer, a professor of race, gender, and sexuality studies at Mills College, discusses a recent $590 million opioid settlement for Native American tribes. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

The settlement comes as overdose deaths in the United States have skyrocketed during the pandemic and continue to climb, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2019 and 2020, black and Native American overdose death rates exceeded that of white Americans, increasing the need for Native American recovery funding.

Corn Natalee Kehaulani BauerHead of the Department of Ethnic Studies at Mills College, warns that settlement celebrations may be premature. Kehaulani Bauer, who is a Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, says that while the agreement indicates progress, it also highlights a list of ongoing issues that Native Americans continue to face.

Comments by Kehaulani Bauer have been edited slightly. Northeastern and Mills completed their merger in September 2021, creating Mills College at Northeastern University.

What did you think when you heard about the settlement?

I don’t want to rain on someone’s parade if they’re super excited about winning this battle in court. But I also want the average non-Indigenous person to have a more complex understanding of what that really means, not just in terms of actual payments, but also what it means in terms of longer relationships between Indigenous governments and the government. American. . And the settlement just doesn’t seem like much when you look at where the money is going.

Can you explain how this settlement affects the relationship between Native Americans and the US government?

The regulations apply only federally recognized tribes, so it’s about 574 tribes. But it is estimated that there are around 400 unrecognized tribes, and that causes a lot of problems. The first is that these people will not see anything, according to the regulations. More importantly, it once again highlights the colonizing, or colonial, aspect of federal recognition. In Hawaii, we call it “wreck fed,” and the government keeps trying to impose some sort of tribal status on the natives. No one wants that, because right now many argue that Hawaii is recognized as a sovereign nation occupied by the United States. If we recognize and accept federal recognition, we give up our sovereignty.

What does this mean for Native American tribes?

It’s what I call in my classes pseudo-sovereignty, because we talk about it as a nation-to-nation relationship, but the native tribes don’t actually enjoy the kind of sovereignty and relationships that America has with European countries, for example. .

Ultimately, I find it problematic that Indigenous peoples have to be recognized by colonizing governments to qualify for this. This help could be so useful to so many people, but this aspect prevents people from accessing what they need.

What other issues do you have with the settlement?

If you look at $590 million distributed among 574 recognized tribes, that’s a little over $1 million per tribe. If you ask anyone who runs a non-profit organization, they’ll tell you that a million dollars doesn’t go very far. It’s not enough money to start a community center or an opioid treatment center, or any kind of long-term benefits.

Any tribal government that gets that million dollars will find a way to make it work. They’re going to hustle and they’re going to stretch that money and they’re going to do good things with it. But what we owe to Indigenous communities on this continent is that companies like Johnson & Johnson actually pay their proper taxes. Because taxes fund addiction treatment centers, schools, hospitals and after-school programs. And a lot of things that may have prevented opioid addiction in the first place.

Is there anything important that people understand about the settlement?

It’s a little frustrating that no one is really held accountable. In every article written about the settlement, they mention that Johnson & Johnson will recognize no wrongdoing. So the settlement just becomes a way to make their problems go away. There is no meaning behind it.

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Nohemi M. Moore