Native Americans Hit Hard By Opioid Crisis, Rarely Included In National Conversation

By Paul Gaita 11/06/17

The Native American population living on reservations has the highest overdose death rate among all minorities.

The San Manuel Band of Indians hold their annual Pow Wow on October 13, 2012 in San Bernardino. Dances include the Grass, Chicken and Fancy dances.

The Washington Post is reporting that among the demographic groups that have endured the most severe impact by the opioid crisis, Native Americans have suffered some of the highest death rates, yet have rarely been included in the national conversation about the epidemic.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that while death rates among white Americans in rural areas rose by more than 325% in 2015, the Native American population living on reservations suffered an increase of more than 500% during the same time frame—the highest among all minority groups.

Despite this statistic, the Post feature suggests that the recent declaration of a public health emergency by President Trump may not prove sufficient to assist the Native American community with this problem.

The Post feature cites an interview with Leon Leader Charge—a member of the Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribe who worked in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA)—about his firsthand observation of opioids in the Native American community. "I know our population suffers immensely," he said. "We have people dying because they are abusing opioids, alcohol and methamphetamines. Their bodies can't take all of that, so they just shut down." 

The situation is not a new occurrence; the CDC reported that in 2014, 8.4 per 100,000 Native Americans were dying of opioid overdoses, the highest number of any racial demographic. As CBS News noted, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that Native American students used heroin and OxyContin two to three times more than the national average between 2009 and 2012. 

Native American leaders have made efforts to take matters directly to the U.S. government—tribal leaders from New Mexico met with representatives from the Department of Justice (DOJ) under President Barack Obama to discuss the state's skyrocketing drug overdose rate in 2016, and a series of listening sessions between tribal leaders and the DOJ in May and June of 2017 led to the announcement of new strategies to expand assistance to Native American tribes in regard to opioid dependency, among other public health and legal issues.

In regard to Trump's public health emergency declaration, Leader Charge suggested that providing enough funding for prevention programs and long-term treatment facilities will have the most impact for Native Americans. "Prevention centers save more money than treatment," he said. "And it's hard for our people to complete 30-day treatment and then go back to the same communities. Chances of recovery are slim or lower if you don't have long-term, sober living facilities."

However, as critics have noted, the Public Health Emergency fund has just $57,000 in available funds—a number that appears too low to provide any significant assistance to any demographic.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.