By Caroline Sha
It has left children parentless and parents childless. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids kill about ninety Americans per day and has cost the United States $75.8 billion dollars a year. Understandably, it is often broadcasted across the front of the headlines with debates over how to confront the issue that is raging across the country. However, most of the discussion has focused on the effects of opioids on white Americans, leaving out another important group impacted by this epidemic: Native Americans.
Native Americans on reservations are in fact some of the most affected people in this crisis. Their death rate from opioids is about 8.4 per 100,000 people. This is more than any other racial group in the United States, including white Americans, whose death rate is 7.9 per 100,000 people. But why is the opioid crisis so severe in reservations? The answer is that the pre-existing conditions on tribal lands make many Native Americans susceptible to drug abuse. And those conditions go back a long way. In fact, it all starts with the exploitation of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. During the 1850’s the government forced children born in reservations to go to boarding schools all around America for the purpose of assimilation. When the children came back as adults, they lost their identity and because of discrimination, were unable to make a living away from the reservation. This continued until 1978 when Native Americans were finally given the right to not send their children to schools outside tribal lands. However, by that time, the damage had been done and the low quality of life in which they lived in had destroyed any sense of their former way of life. Families had already developed lineages of violence and bad habits like drug use and were unable to bring themselves up out of poverty, continuing the cycle of poorness and psychological trauma. Even today, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, incarceration, mental illnesses, suicide and drug addiction are commonplace on reservations. And it is all those factors that lead to a higher chance for drug addiction which means that when the opioid crisis swept America, it hit Native Americans hard. But despite all that, nothing much has been done by the government or other citizens.
This indifference is markedly different from the fervor over opioids in rural America . When opioids started ravaging white communities, outpourings of sympathy and pity flooded the internet. Articles and videos exposed the humanity behind this issue and pulled on audience’s heartstrings. They portrayed the victims of the epidemic as either people who were recklessly given painkillers or those who had turned to drugs because of something wrong with their lives. One can also find this empathetic view of the problem in the government’s reaction to the current epidemic. Donald Trump declared it a national health crisis and during that speech, brought up his brother, Fred Trump Jr, who had struggled with alcoholism. He stated that his brother was a “great guy” who made a bad choice and related that to why young people should avoid drugs. It is clear that Trump does not intend to villainize those struggling with opiods. This gentle approach is also reflected in the current goals of the government regarding the epidemic. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), the Department of Health and Human Services intends to fund the prevention and treatment of addiction. In addition, Congress also passed a law in 2016 that provided money towards things such as training people to prevent overdoses.
These actions are unlike what has been done for the Native Americans, which is frankly very little. Finding anything talking about this problem is extremely hard. Sure, the CDC has statistics about the high Native American overdose rate, but no talk on how to reduce these numbers have been found. There is no tide of support for drug issues on reservations and people have raised very little outrage over the removal of Native Americans from the national opioid story. And because there is no huge backlash, the government has gotten away with barely doing anything. Much of the funds Congress has given out to solve the opioid problem are not going towards reservations, causing tribes to not have access to prime treatment and prevention resources. In addition, state programs are not targeted towards Native Americans , leaving Native Americans out of the recovery process of many states. And despite his campaign promises to wipe out opioid abuse in the “entire” nation, Trump has not taken any significant steps towards giving tribal lands the things they need to stop the continuation of drug usage.
However, there is a still a glimmer of hope among those in this terrible situation. The Cherokee have taken the matter into their own hands and are attempting to sue pharmacies like CVS and drug distributors like Cardinal Health. Over in Washington, the Muckleshoot reservation contains recovery houses, needle exchange programs and pass out Naloxone, which can save people who have overdosed, despite low funding. Perhaps if more attention is brought to this issue, bigger changes can occur and a precedent of Native American inclusion can be set. But for now, the issue still remains on the table.