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Conference empowers Natives in war against meth

More than 700 gather at National Indian Health Board event

PORTLAND, Ore. - If information is power, then the 700 or more tribal representatives who attended the 24th annual National Indian Health Board Consumer Conference, held Sept. 24 - 28 in Portland, went home better informed and armed with more ways to deal with substance abuse.

This year's conference was titled ''HOPE for Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery in Indian Country.''

Conference workshops included ''Reducing Methamphetamine Use and Related Effects,'' ''Methamphetamine Abuse and Community Solutions,'' ''Lingering Effects of Methamphetamine Labs in Homes'' and ''Using Housing Regulations to Protect Native Communities from Methamphetamine Use and Production.'' A workshop on drug-free communities grants was also held.

Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, was the keynote speaker. His topic: ''HOPE for Crystal Methamphetamine Recovery and Use Prevention.''

Former Fort Peck Assiniboine/Sioux Chairman Spike Bighorn spoke about healing after his child's suicide, and outlined the traits of a child in depression and distress.

Health officials and statisticians from Eastern Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw described the influence of a community on drug enforcement policy and drug prevention, and talked of the need for substance abuse education.

Darrell Hillaire, a coordinator of Lummi's Community Mobilization Against Drugs Initiative, explained how the Lummi Nation is attacking substance abuse ''from all ends'' - adopting a Children's Code, which states that children are Lummi's highest priority; incorporating traditional practices into treatment and punishment; and banishing dealers from Lummi land.

''We have 55 people in our detox clinic,'' Hillaire said. ''If we had a bigger building, we'd have double that.''

While other conference workshops focused on mental health, disorders and domestic and youth violence, substance abuse often emerged as a factor. Meth was the biggest concern; grim statistics support the reason.

According to a November 2006 NCAI report, American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians have the highest rate of meth use in the United States - 1.7 percent for American Indians/Alaska Natives and 2.2 percent for Native Hawaiians. This rate is substantially higher than whites, 0.7 percent; Hispanics, 0.5 percent; Asians, 0.2 percent; and blacks, 0.1 percent.

Sixty-nine percent of tribal respondents to a BIA study indicated that they had no meth rehab centers; IHS is funded at less than 60 percent of the level needed to provide basic health care services, therefore, health and treatment resources are already overtaxed.

Some 74 percent of tribal police departments rank meth as the greatest drug threat; 40 - 50 percent of violent crime cases investigated in Indian country involve meth; and 48 percent of tribal police departments reported an increase in child neglect or abuse cases related to meth.

Ninety percent of tribal police reported that they need additional drug-investigation training, and Indian country law enforcement is woefully understaffed - 2,555 officers in 562 federally-recognized tribes, an estimated 42 percent less than what is needed. Some reservations are the size of small U.S. states; in Rosebud, S.D., a tribal police officer on shift patrols a 400-mile area.

And when tribal police arrest a suspected drug dealer, tribal courts are powerless to prosecute if the suspect is non-Indian, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe. In that decision, the high court ruled that tribal courts have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. That means, if the U.S. attorney doesn't prosecute, the dealer could go free.

Linda Holt, Suquamish, chairman of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, said allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on tribal land - just as other courts prosecute for crimes committed in their jurisdictions - would make a big difference.

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''If you look at any criminal activity, there's some drug element to it,'' Holt said. ''If they know they are going to be arrested and prosecuted, they're going to go someplace else.''

Also in attendance were key federal officials who participated in discussions about inequities in health care and law enforcement on Native land. Participants included Dr. Charles W. Grim, Cherokee, assistant U.S. surgeon general and outgoing director of the IHS; U.S. Public Health Service Rear Admiral Eric Broderick, deputy administrator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and others from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Golfer Notah Begay III, Navajo/San Felipe Pueblo/Isleta Pueblo, four-time winner of the PGA Tour, spoke about ''Athletics Beyond Good Sportsmanship: Integrity and Strength for Native Kids.''

There are signs that Indian country initiatives are working.

* In the Pacific Northwest, children, teens and young adults participate in the Canoe Journey each July and August, pulling in traditional cedar canoes on the waters traveled by their ancestors.

For some participants, the journey to the host nation lasts several hundred miles, requiring mental, physical and spiritual preparation. There are gatherings along the way to the final destination, with traditional ceremonies, dance, food and song.

Participation in the Canoe Journey ''has made a total turnaround in children who were on the path to destruction,'' Holt said.

* The NCAI's Tribal Meth Initiative Task Force is working with federal education, law enforcement and health agencies to create a comprehensive Indian country anti-meth media and education campaign. Included in the campaign will be radio and print ads, and educational materials for elementary school students.

* The Lummi Nation in Washington state has banished several meth dealers from its land and, in December 2005, burned a meth house. The Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona has also banished drug dealers from its land.

Other initiatives reported by the NCAI:

* The Crow Nation in Montana has instituted a Meth Walk or Ride, where children in the community walk or ride horseback chanting ''No more meth,'' taking a stand to neighbors and community members who they know are involved in making or selling meth.

* On the Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana, tribal courts are sentencing youth offenders to time before their elders in lieu of incarceration. The elders assign the youth time on cultural endeavors and lessons, and parents are responsible for ensuring their children follow through, according to the NCAI.

* Chickasaw Nation police teamed with five state and federal agencies to accomplish one of the biggest meth busts in southern Oklahoma/northeastern Texas. Together, the task force seized more than 15 pounds of meth, confiscated $161,000 in cash and 49 weapons, and arrested more than 50 people believed to be members of a Chicago street gang.

The next Consumer Conference will be hosted by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County, Calif., in September 2008.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at