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Airing the meth crisis is courageous and needed


Airing dirty laundry is uncomfortable, as Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, indicated during the recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on methamphetamine use on reservations. But the meth problem is so overwhelming, she continued, it had to be done. Her brave and emotional testimony recounted an appalling string of personal tragedies, including the death of her own rodeo-champion nephew.

Indian country knows how painful it can be to share these stories with outsiders. The personal hurt is too often compounded by the incomprehension of the mainstream society. Well-intentioned interventions by non-Indians historically have caused even more disruption, turning tragedies into family and tribal catastrophes. And there are malevolent forces in the dominant culture that are more than happy to make propaganda out of the undeniable social ills. But these are risks that national Indian leaders have properly decided to take.

For more than a year, the National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance and tribal leaders across the country have prepared a campaign against meth use. NCAI President Joe Garcia made it a plank of his State of the Indian Nations address and issued a “Call to Action” to Congress and the White House. The Senate hearing was part of the response. So are efforts to increase federal funding for drug treatment and law enforcement.

But the gamble has a downside. Some of the press ignored the hard work and complicated policy questions, preferring to sensationalize the problem. NCAI people, as well as officials at St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York, spent months trying to interest a New York Times reporter in the story. In the end she produced a New York Post-style story making lurid charges that border reservations had become havens for drug smugglers. Outright enemies of tribal economies picked up some of the looser language and are now talking about a “new-style Indian Mafia.”

Maybe this reaction was predictable. The mass media tends to lose its head on drug stories. It hypes the threat, preferring loose rhetoric about “epidemics” to balanced assessments based on statistical evidence. A reaction has even set in among press critics. Jack Shafer, of the online magazine Slate, is making a habit of refuting major cover stories on the meth threat. Far from rising, he argues, meth use has stayed relatively flat in recent years. So far Shafer hasn’t unleashed his skeptical analysis on the Times series, but a more balanced look would be welcome.

It would probably conclude that whatever the hyperbole in the mainstream press, meth use is a serious and growing problem for Indian country. In fact, it might be hitting reservations harder than the rest of the country. Gary Edwards, CEO of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, gave the SIAC hearing several reasons why. In the first place, he said, meth use is correlated with alcoholism. Meth distributors target alcohol abusers “as a primary consumer base,” and the rate of alcohol addiction among Indian people is high. Second, meth is one of the cheapest of illicit drugs, making it the drug of choice in poor communities. Third, tribes are vulnerable through their geography.

Edwards said that the majority of the meth distributed in tribal communities seemed to be smuggled across the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. Some 41 tribes have lands within 100 miles of these borders. A majority of these tribes told Edwards’ group that they had encountered drug smuggling across their borders.

Matthew Mead, U.S. attorney for Wyoming, elaborated with case studies of drug cartels targeting reservations. He told the committee that members of a Mexican operation led by Jesus Martin Sagaste-Cruz hatched a “business plan” to market meth on Lakota reservations after reading a Denver Post article about the huge volume of liquor sales in Whiteclay, the Nebraska border town. Members of the drug ring actually moved to the vicinity of the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Yankton and Santee Sioux reservations to recruit meth dealers. According to Mead, they even romanced Indian women to turn them into addicts.

These operations relied on a fourth vulnerability: the splintered legal jurisdiction on reservations. This apparently technical problem is the least reported of all, but it is clearly the most important. In fact, the NCAI planned its anti-meth campaign as a way of dramatizing the fetters on reservation law enforcement. It could easily have used domestic violence or sexual predation on women and children as other examples. This problem is entirely the fault of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a string of its most racist decisions since the end of black/white segregation, the court has ruled that tribal courts and police do not have jurisdiction over non-Indians (Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion in the 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe) or even over Indians who are not tribal members (Justice Anthony Kennedy in Duro v. Reina, 1990).

These widely berated rulings created an impossible situation, often prohibiting tribes from enforcing the law over a majority of the residents on their territory. Federal jurisdiction was supposed to cover the gap, but U.S. attorneys habitually gave reservation crime their lowest priority. The result has been a legal no-man’s land, in which non-Indian criminals came to view the reservation as a sanctuary. The Duro case in particular completely ignored the reality of reservation life, where frequent inter-marriages have brought in substantial numbers of residents from other tribes. The case was so manifestly foolish that Congress quickly passed the “Duro Fix” law to restore tribal control over resident non-member Indians. But the constitutionality of this law remained in doubt until the Supreme Court backtracked in the 2004 U.S. v. Lara case.

When you add chronic underfunding of tribal law enforcement to this Supreme Court-induced anarchy, it’s no wonder that reservations have a problem with lawless elements – not only in drug use but in domestic violence, attacks on women and “quality of life” issues in general. The wonder is that tribal officials have still managed to find ways of coping. In reporting on lurid tales of drug smuggling to the Lakota reservations, Wind River in Wyoming and elsewhere, the press often neglects to mention that the principals in these operations have been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in part due to courageous work by tribal law enforcement. The most effective efforts against the smugglers have been joint operations combining federal, state and tribal departments.

Some tribes have come up with sovereignty-friendly solutions to the “checkerboarding” of jurisdiction. The International Association of Chiefs of Police strongly recommends cross-deputization agreements giving tribal police and their neighboring counterparts the power to act as agents for each other. (The chairman of the IACP Indian Country Law Enforcement Section when this report was drafted was Ed Reina, who as chief of police for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community was the respondent in Duro.) In its long article on smuggling problems at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in New York, the Times neglected to mention that the state had just passed a bill giving St. Regis Tribal Police the authority of the State Police in dealing with non-Indian lawbreakers.

Meth use requires a variety of counter-measures, such as anti-drug education, treatment for addicts and continued public health campaigns against alcoholism. But it also requires a change in the irrational, anarchic legal structure created by the Supreme Court. Tribes need the power to control and punish law-breaking on their territory, even if the wrongdoers are non-member Indians or non-Indians. This is not only an inherent attribute of sovereignty; it is an urgent practical matter. The single most effective attack on the meth epidemic would be a Supreme Court ruling, or congressional action, overturning the Oliphant decision.

It might have been deeply embarrassing to publicize the sordid details of the meth crisis on reservations, but a return to more rational jurisdiction for tribal law enforcement would more than justify the pain.