Idaho america

Tribes: Settling the opioid case will promote healing


Shawna Priest, a member of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, sits in the child care area of ​​the Jamestown Healing Clinic where she works as a medical assistant, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Sequim, Wash., as she talks about the battles her son and daughter have had with opioid addiction. The tribe is building a full-service health center to treat both tribesmen and other community residents for opioid addictions. Earlier in the week, Native American tribes across the United States settled a lawsuit against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the three largest drug distribution companies in the United States for $590 million. The money won’t be distributed quickly, but tribal leaders say it will play a role in healing their communities from an epidemic that has disproportionately killed Native Americans. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)


Cheryl Andrews-Maltais takes note of the heartbreaking dates that remind families in Wampanoag that they are still in the midst of the opioid crisis – birthdays of lost loved ones, anniversaries of their deaths. Then she reaches out with a phone call to the mourner.

“And then you’re on the other side, and you’re getting ready for some other holiday or event that you can’t share because of that,” she said.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, led by Andrews-Maltese in Massachusetts, was among hundreds of Native American tribes who sued drug makers and distributors for their role in the outbreak. A study found that Native Americans had the highest per capita rate of opioid overdose deaths of any population group in 2015.

Andrews-Maltese can think of 15 deaths among his tribe of around 500 people alone.

The tribes settled this week with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the three largest US drug distribution companies for $590 million. Lawyers representing the tribes hope to reach agreements with other players in the pharmaceutical industry, including the remaining manufacturers and pharmacies.

Last year, the four companies announced a $26 billion settlement with state and local governments to end all lawsuits. An overwhelming majority of governments have signed; companies must decide this month whether this constitutes sufficient acceptance to move forward. The agreement with the tribes must be subtracted from these agreements.

Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes is eligible for a share of the settlement money made public Tuesday. It’s unclear how quickly the money would flow to the tribes, but it won’t be much and not until 95% of the tribes and tribal organizations that sued agree to the settlement.

“Obviously it should have been more,” Andrews-Maltese said. “The continuous and cumulative effects are generational, and this money will not be generational.”

A special prothonotary and the judge who oversaw the case must work out a formula to divide the money. Three enrolled tribal members who are well known in Indian Country will be responsible for administering the funds: former Secretary of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, former Acting Director of the Indian Health Service Mary Smith, and Kathy Hannan, president of the National Museum of the American Indian Council.

Tribal leaders say they hope the funding will take into account not only population, but also geographic diversity, access to health care, land mass and tribal needs.

“A measuring stick that unfortunately applies to the vast majority of tribes is that they are disproportionately affected by opioids, alcohol and other chemical-generating problems with which they have had a history. very difficult to manage,” said Geoffrey Strommer, whose firm represented some tribes in the colony.

A 236-page court document filed in the case lays out staggering statistics on tribes linked to drug-related crimes and deaths, and notes a long history — including federal government attempts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. white – which has contributed to generations of trauma. Most tribes have struggled financially to deal with the opioid crisis through law enforcement, courts, social services and health care.

Tribal police departments said in the court filing they had to train more officers on how to deal with prescription and synthetic drugs, and arm them with tools to deal with overdoses.

Tribes have turned to wellness or healing centers to treat people with opioid addictions, their families and the wider community. In Sequim, Washington, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is building a holistic health center in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains and near the headwaters of the Duwamish River.

It will serve up to 300 people per day, tribal and non-tribal members struggling with addiction. Shuttle services will be available for anyone requiring transportation and childcare. Plans call for a water feature up front that will reinforce a traditional story about the ability to change the course of a river by moving a rock.

The tribe has also funded a full-time social services worker who will be embedded with the police department to address concerns from the wider community regarding patients and any drug-related crime.

“Sometimes people, optically, think these kinds of treatment centers become a magnet for drug dealers and the underbelly of this industry,” said Jamestown S’Klallam President W. Ron Allen. “And that’s not it. It’s the reverse of that. They’re designed to be highly secure, highly secure, highly monitored, and totally focused on helping these people get healthy.”

Joshua Carver, who received services from the tribe to overcome a heroin addiction, helped install some of the center’s artwork as part of his tribal building work.

His mother, Shawna Priest, saw it as an evolution from taking oxycodone for back problems, switching to heroin, being hospitalized on the verge of an overdose and detoxifying at home for six months before recovering there. is four years old.

Her daughter has also struggled with addiction, including a relapse after losing a newborn baby, but has recovered and works at a tribal casino. Priest herself was terrified of taking medication after undergoing ankle surgery last April, wondering if it would make her addicted. She shares her family’s story to give hope to others.

“You can get through this. You can pass,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Leonard Forsman, president of the nearby Suquamish Tribe, said he was happy that major drugmakers and distributors were being held accountable for the opioid epidemic, although none admitted wrongdoing in the settlement. . The tribe plans to use the money to support cultural resurgence, which he says “has been the most effective route to preventing addiction and fostering recovery.”

The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma said it would use the funding to expand mental health treatment and related services.

Kristopher Peters, a former policeman from the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state, said he saw good people lose their jobs, destroy their families, hurt others and die from drug addiction. opioids. Incarceration is not the answer, and treatment often does not work the first time.

“We don’t expect the funds given to solve our problems or get us out of this epidemic,” said Peters, now the tribe’s president. “That in itself won’t cure anyone.”

Cultural gatherings like the shared canoe trip between Puget Sound tribes and potlatches — ceremonial feasts that involve giving gifts — are part of the equation, he said.

“I’ve seen people who are absolute drug addicts fighting crime on that canoe trip, and they’re totally different people,” he said. “Connect with their traditional ways. It is healing.


Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona, and Warren from Sequim, Washington. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter.