VERMILION RESERVATION- It will take the efforts of many, including community members, health care providers, treatment professionals, law enforcement, and governments to stem the rising costs of …
VERMILION RESERVATION- It will take the efforts of many, including community members, health care providers, treatment professionals, law enforcement, and governments to stem the rising costs of opioid addiction in our communities.
There are no easy answers to this growing problem, but there are many steps that need to be taken to insure a safe and healthy environment for our children and families.
“This affects all of us,” said Tribal Chair Cathy Chavers, as she opened the Community Forum on Heroin and Opiates, held at Fortune Bay on Jan. 30. “It is here, and here to stay. We need to battle this big issue which is tearing apart our people.”
The forum attracted a large crowd, including residents from Vermilion and Nett Lake, health care professionals, many who had family members struggling with drug addiction, as well as those from the wider community.
The impact of opioid addiction has been felt the hardest by American Indian communities in this state, according to information from the Minnesota Department of Health, but this is an issue which is affecting almost every community in rural Minnesota.
The forum was a cooperative effort, with professionals from tribal, county, state, university, and law enforcement. Area providers, including area treatment resources, had informational booths set up around the meeting room.
Shanna Vidor, a Bois Forte Health Services physian, explained their new policies for prescribing opioid drugs. They are now emphasizing non-opioid and behavioral treatments for pain, and only using opioids after screening for factors that might contribute to addictive behaviors. They are also stressing the importance of making sure such prescriptions stay in the hands of those who are supposed to be taking them.
“This is something we take very seriously,” said Vidor.
Health providers are also focusing on keeping their patients moving, both in the home and at their jobs. They are using proven techniques such as cognitive behavior therapy and yoga to help patients deal with chronic pain.
A Bois Forte staffer whose husband committed suicide after struggling with opioid addiction spoke to the group. She talked about the impact of addiction on her family, and the need for more resources. She also talked about the dangers of fentanyl. “It is deadly,” she said, “and they are putting it into everything.”
She stressed that families who have members struggling with addiction need to seek help and not keep it a secret.
“This is a disease,” she said.
“Addicts don’t know how to get help,” she said. “I ask you to get the word out, and to be available no matter what.”
The event’s keynote speaker was James Cross, founder of the Twin Cities-based group Natives Against Heroin, and a former drug dealer and heroin addict who spent time in prison as a youth and an adult for dealing drugs. Cross, along with others who have dealt with drug addiction, patrol their neighborhoods, providing support and information.As well as being trained to administer nalaxone (called Narcan), a drug that reverses an opioid or fentanyl-induced drug overdose, they provide clean needles to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The group also organizes public protests in front of known drug houses, pressuring landlords to deal with the issues that affect entire neighborhoods.
Natives Against Heroin recently received a $30,000 state grant to help fund their work. The money funds the purchase of the single-dose Narcan injectors (which cost about $30 each), as well as clean needles. Cross noted that while most of their work takes place in inner-city Minneapolis, they have started traveling outstate to reservations to help those communities.
“We are hard people,” said Cross. “This black spirit among our people is very strong. It knows when we are lonely, when we are afraid.” Cross said making sure tribal members are connected to their sacred items is essential.
Cross was impressed with the turnout for the event.
“You all came out,” he said. “We can make a change. It will take action. It will take leadership. It will take work.”
Cross talked about the “boots on the ground” work his group does, confronting landlords who allow their rental properties to become havens for drug users and drug dealers. He offered to come back and work with community members on such projects.
“You need to call the cops, take down license plate numbers,” he said. “It ain’t snitching. It is making a better community for our young people.”
He noted that community members do not need titles to be leaders. He talked about the historic response of the native communities to the introduction of alcohol. The tradition of circles, he said, could be applied, as well as bringing users back into more traditional ceremonies. If that doesn’t work, he said, communities needed to consider the practice of shunning, where a drug user is sent away from the community, and only welcomed back once they are “clean.”
But he also spoke of compassion.
“I was an IV drug user for many years,” he said. “I can understand…Think about when you were young, and you needed help and it wasn’t there.”
“We have to help our people, not shun them, but not enable them,” he said. “I am willing to fight for our people today.”
Cross has been sober since 2002, but says he still has struggles. His identical twin brother still struggles with addiction. “It is so hard to see the person you love, and you are losing them.” Cross’s children have struggled with addiction. One is now recovered and works with him as part of Natives Against Heroin, but another son is in prison for murder.
Addicts are their own worst enemies, he said.
Cross urged the group to figure out where the drugs are coming from, then try to shut it down.
“We need to keep our traditions and values going,” he said. Cross noted that increasing mental health services was also essential, and that many drug addicts are suicidal.
“Connect with your culture,” he said. “The drum wakes up the spirit of our people and the land.”
“Death is scary,” he said. “No one uses these drugs to die.”
He said he would like to see civil commitment laws changed to allow family members to get their loved ones into treatment. Right now, he said, the state will wait until someone has overdosed as many as five times before ordering treatment.
“It might not be our way,” he said. “But our way is to help…sometimes we need to use their medicine.”
“We need to stop this epidemic,” he said, “this cycle of negativity in our community. We need to embrace our youth in the way we wanted to be embraced when we were young.”
Cross and his wife are now raising some of their grandchildren. He talked about how he spends time playing with them, as well as helping them with their schoolwork. He said adults need to let children enjoy their childhood and not grow up too fast.
Pam Hughes, who works on chemical dependency issues for the tribe, thanked everyone who had worked to make the program possible
“It will take our community to fight this epidemic,” she said. “We can work together and save lives.”
The program was followed by a session on how to administer Narcan, and free Narcan kits were handed out. Narcan can be purchased at cost without a prescription at any CVS Pharmacy.
Two follow-up programs were held this past week, on Vermilion and Nett Lake, led by area law enforcement officials.