CLAIRE GALOFARO Associated Press
BEMIDJI, Minn. – Rachel Taylor kissed her fingers and pressed them against the sewn crow on a leather bag on the living room couch. “Oh, my baby,” she whispered. She clutched the buckskin satchel filled with her son’s ashes.
Almost a year ago, she opened her bedroom door and screamed so loudly that she woke up the neighbor. Kyle Domrese lay face down on his bed, one of more than 100,000 Americans lost in a year to drug overdoses as the COVID-19 pandemic deepened America’s addiction disaster.
When he was 4 years old, the healer gave him his Ojibwe name: Aandegoons — “little crow.” She traced the outline of the black bird on the bag.
“I love you,” Taylor said to the bag, as she does every time she leaves her home in this town surrounded by three Ojibwa reservations in remote northern Minnesota.
As the pandemic ravaged the country, deaths from drug overdoses jumped nearly 30% to an all-time high. The drug crisis has also diversified from a predominantly white affliction to the death of people of color with staggering speed. Last year, the death rate was highest among Native Americans, for whom COVID-19 has further despaired communities facing generations of trauma, poverty, unemployment and underfunded healthcare systems.
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Taylor’s tribe, the White Earth Nation, studied the lives they lost to addiction.
“Their death certificates say they died of an overdose, but that’s not true,” said a member of their study group.
These deaths were the culmination of much more than that: despite their resilience, Native Americans carry in their blood 500 years of pain at having been deprived of their land, their language, their culture, their children. In memory of living people, children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools with the motto “Kill the Indian, save the man”.
“What they died of was a broken heart,” the study said.
For years, Taylor tried to break the cycle.
Her grandmother was sent to boarding school, where she was taught to be so ashamed of her Ojibwe language that she would only speak it once she relieved the pain by drinking.
Taylor had her daughter when she was 19 and her son a few years later. She had lost control of it for a few years as she struggled with her own addiction. She told them that she wished she could fix all the malfunctions that happened when she was using.
“Then I thought, well, then my mom should go back and fix things, then my grandma should go back, it should go on like this for generations,” she said.
Taylor had lived in more than 50 places before she was 18 and had been the victim of sexual, physical and mental abuse.
She prayed to her creator to spare her children and told her son every day that she loved him.
White Earth Nation also worked hard to save its people from addiction and for many years did not lose anyone to overdoses on the reservation. But then the pandemic came and proved too painful for some.
Taylor and her son were quarantined together at her home in Bemidji, a town of 15,000.
He had started abusing the pills as a teenager when he was given a prescription after undergoing surgery for an infected finger. Then, consumed by the craziness of addiction, he smoked anything – methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl – that could soothe his anxiety and depression.
The months of isolation dragged on and he said it looked like the pandemic would never end. He told her he felt like a bum.
“He just gave up,” she said. Around them, people were dying.
The number of overdoses investigated by the regional drug task force rose from 20 in 2019 to 88 last year, said Joe Kleszyk, its commander. Fifteen of them were fatal, triple the previous year.
This year, there have been 148 overdoses and 24 of those victims have died. The vast majority were Native American.
When the US government forced Native Americans off their land, it signed treaties with tribes promising to provide them with basic necessities like health care. Addiction deaths prove he never kept his word, said Sen. Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota.
Indian healthcare has been underfunded for years. The national average for health spending is just over $11,000 per person, but tribal health systems receive about a third and urban Indian groups even less, according to the National Council of Urban Indian Health. COVID-19 has added another blow to this already stressed system.
Smith introduced a bill this summer that would introduce $200 million in grants to Indian organizations to bolster mental health and addiction treatment. It’s stuck in Congress.
“I’m sick of telling people their kids are dead,” Kleszyk said.
In January, Rachel Taylor’s heart began to ache.
“It felt like my heart knew before me,” she said. “My heart was broken four days before he even died.”
On January 11, she opened the door to her room. Her skin was purple and icy.
“Come back, my baby, come back,” she cried.
The toxicology report said he died from a combination of alprazolam, the drug in Xanax, and fentanyl.
At first she put his ashes in an urn, but it was sharp metal. A friend made the buckskin bag that she could hug.
The anniversary of his death approaches January 11, and it is customary in his culture to return him to the wild after a year of mourning.
But every morning, she kisses her bag. He’s always liked to laugh, so Taylor teases him.
“Keep an eye on the cat,” she will say. Then she tells the cat to keep an eye on him.
“The healer says I have to let him go back to Earth,” she said. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to do that. He left me too soon.”