Indigenous tribe responds to drug addiction epidemic | Native Americans

HArold Plaster had been awake for nine days when he noticed her face in the mirror. It was January 2017 and he was taking his last dose of heroin in a red house on the Lummi reservation in northwestern Washington state. The windows were covered in garbage bags and there were rats running around.

As he looked at himself, dangerously thin, he said he began to think of his six children, all adults or in foster care, and his mother, whom he had promised his late father to take care of. to occupy.

“I saw myself in the mirror and I was like, ‘What the hell are you doing, Harold?'” he told the Guardian.

He called Rosalie Scott, director of Lummi Chemical Addiction Recovery and Education (Care), the outpatient drug and alcohol addiction treatment and education program that is leading the way in addiction response on the reservation.

“I don’t want to die,” he told her.

Plaster had already attempted a treatment more than a dozen times, but Scott didn’t hesitate. She ordered him to stay put, Plaster recalled, then added, “I prayed and waited for you to come here, Harold.”

Five minutes later, another member of the care team was outside the house. Plaster quickly collected his only belongings – backpack, blanket and clothes – and was taken to a nearby rehab facility.

Last January, the 52-year-old ushered in five years of sobriety alongside his two youngest children, ages 12 and 15, and his new wife, at the home he grew up in, and with his mother in a nearby nursing home.

Mount Baker seen from the tides of the Lummi Reservation in Washington State.

Jhe Lummi Nation, a community of more than 5,500 people located on a small sliver of land on the west coast of the United States extending into the Salish Sea, has faced addiction issues on the reservation for decades. It has touched everything from crime to housing to families and foster families. And for more than half a century, tribal leaders have worked to rid the reservation of drug addiction, said Deanna Point, Scott’s acting director at Care.

“We are just beginning to get our hands on a [drug]and right after that, once we think we’re finally putting our hands together and getting some kind of relief from this medicine that’s in our community, a new one comes along,” she said.

In recent years, the situation has become particularly acute, due to the prevalence of highly addictive methamphetamine, and more recently, deadly pure fentanyl, or a combination of the two.

The estimated number of drug overdose deaths in the United States during a 12-month period ending in April 2021 increased by 28.5% compared to the same period the previous year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths caused by opioids, along with synthetic opioids – primarily fentanyl – and psychostimulants, including methamphetamine, fueled the increase.

While methamphetamine is highly addictive and can cause strokes and psychotic episodes, fentanyl can be deadly at just 2mg.

In recent years, there has been an increase in seizures of the two drugs across the country’s southern border, as they have become more widely available and cheaper, according to Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on drug abuse.

On Lummi’s reservation, Point described fentanyl as “the worst we’ve ever seen” due to its lethality. When combined with methamphetamine, the risk of overdose may be even greater.

She explained that the tribe initially struggled to identify what made community members appear intoxicated because fentanyl did not show up on the drug test they used.

Woman holding a feather in front of a building with indigenous motifs
Deanna Point, Acting Director of Care.

“After kind of putting two and two together, we started testing fentanyl. And everyone just started testing positive left and right,” she said.

At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has fueled stress and anxiety among tribal members as they have been cut off from their support networks and their cultural and sporting events are suspended. The result for the Lummi Nation was one of the highest numbers of drug relapses, according to Lummi Nation President William Jones Jr.

As of February, Care had 342 active clients, but 39 of them in its drug treatment program hadn’t seen for more than 14 days, a sign they may have relapsed, according to Rene Ramirez, a program sponsor for the opioid treatment. program.

Drug abuse is of course not unique to this community. A study published in September in the journal Jama Psychiatry found that between 2015 and 2019, the number of methamphetamine-related overdose deaths in the United States rose 180% to 15,489. When divided by ethnicity, the report found that Native Americans and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of methamphetamine use disorder.

These high numbers within the indigenous community may be linked to historic trauma in the form of communal massacres, forced displacement and residential schools, explained Dr. Tommy K Begay, assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Arizona and member of the Navajo Nation. The trauma, he explained, has resulted in maladaptive coping behaviors that sometimes include drug use, which have been passed on to new generations.

“It’s not just unique to Indigenous people,” Begay said. “You put any human being in circumstances that certain individuals were put in, we would see the same relationships.”

Left: Interior scene with indigenous motifs on the wall.  Right: building with indigenous motifs
Left: Artwork by Ramsey Lewis on display at the care centre. Right: the care facility.

Yet the issue of drug abuse among Aboriginal people has been overlooked, Volkow said.

She explained that treatment and prevention must be prioritized and that the response should involve culturally appropriate treatment, as well as prevention that takes into account the systemic issues at play.

“Prevention will require that we actually provide them with support, social, economic and educational, so that you give them quality services,” she said. “The same is with health care, that you need to provide quality services that will help cushion and overcome years of disparities.”

Today, the Lummi Nation uses a combination of culture-based healing and addiction treatment approaches, all centered on love and compassion.

The outpatient treatment program, Care, is housed in a small cream one-story building. It offers group sessions ranging from one hour to nine hours per week, medication treatment plans and specialized programs for women who are pregnant or have children.

Group sessions typically include clients sharing a meal together, an important part of the Lummi Nation’s cultural identity, Point explained. There’s also a grow room inside the facility, where guests often spend hours beading, cedar weaving, and carving.

“What makes our program unique is that we focus a lot on our tradition and our cultural values. And some people come in, they may have roots in their cultural identity, but most of them won’t have roots in who they are,” she said.

The tribe also connects people with addictions to a wide range of programs throughout the reservation and beyond, allowing them seamless access to things like drug rehabilitation centers, housing, parenting classes and professional training.

But when mainstream treatment approaches don’t work, the tribe turns to measures like banning and withholding fishing licenses when someone doesn’t produce a clean drug test.

Jones explained that recently the tribe made the decision to allow the homes of repeat offenders to be turned over to the Lummi tribe until the person undergoes treatment.

It’s “just a new tool that we’re trying to use at Lummi here to help with drug use and drug dealers moving into our community,” he said. “They find a place, they come in and they move in. And they really support a family or a home.”

A woman represents a portrait in front of three windows.  On the right: a blue sign in the shade of the trees
Left: Josephine Jones, assistant director of Care., in Bellingham, Washington. Right: an anti-drug sign at the Lummi Reserve

Ohe reservation home has seen decades of tribal members find their way to healing. Known as the Raven Home, it was a donation from a doctor in Bellingham and in the 1990s it was turned into a temporary home for those recovering from chemical addiction, Scott explained.

With three bedrooms, community members who may not be eligible for US Housing and Urban Development housing, which has many requirements, were able to utilize this safe and extremely affordable space.

“For our homes, that’s what we’re trying to do is cut out all that bureaucracy, because everyone deserves a second chance,” Point said.

Point knows better than anyone how vital home can be. In 2010, while in treatment for drug addiction, she lived there with her four children.

“The Raven Home was where I learned to be independent and to be a mother,” she said. “The support I received from the Lummi board here really inspired me in this area today.”

The tribe is now working to add a second home, called the Salmon Home, as well as a rehab center, so they don’t always have to refer community members to off-reserve treatment centers, which are often full. .

Tribal leaders have also set up programs to try to deter drug and alcohol abuse, including canoe clubs. Groups of young people follow physical but also cultural training within the framework of the clubs and dedicate hours each week to the preparation of the races.

A view of Lummi Bay.
A view of Lummi Bay.

Akesha Martin, 30, who started paddling at one of these clubs aged 10, said the sense of belonging stayed with her.

“I think just being able to be a part of this and being able to be part of this family is what really kept me grounded and able to get on with my life. And never having to experience the drug or alcohol addiction that my family had to go through,” she said.

For Plaster, whose recovery process has extended far beyond group sessions, and into parenting classes, anger management and even paying for his driver’s license tickets, the tribe’s programs completely changed his life.

“They really wanted to help me. They really wanted me to stay clean. They wanted me to be a better person,” he said. “And that’s how they made me feel.”

Nohemi M. Moore