It was a beautiful May day for a community run and gathering in Rosebud, South Dakota. Kids chased after hundreds of colorful balloons. More than 300 children and community members lolled on the grass, ate barbecue and danced a round dance during this community’s first outdoor festival of the year. The event looked like a typical small town celebration but took on an ominous tone when it was time for the speeches. The presenters had come to discuss a deadly subject: meth addiction.
This gathering was the Four Directions Meth Awareness Run and Rally coordinated by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Meth Initiative program.
Some of the presenters were nervous, and their anxiety was clearly more than stage-fright. Some of them, still tweaking from long-term meth use, approached the microphone gingerly, and shifted nervously from foot to foot as they spoke. The most anxious speakers, who sweated and fumbled, were those who’d been court-ordered to publicly announce their meth addiction as part of their plea agreements in tribal court. The tribe has to deal with so many meth-related arrests that it employs a part-time prosecutor who deals only with these cases.
Others, who’d been sober for a long time, were clear-eyed and calm as they talked about the havoc meth had wrought in their lives. They spoke of the blessings of sobriety and the gratitude they felt about having their lives and loved ones back.
All of the presenters, however, shared the same message: meth, no matter how it is used, will eventually kill you.
Unfortunately, there is no magic cure. Despite the Rosebud Sioux tribe’s’ best efforts to offer meth specific treatment programs both inside jail and out, addicts have a high relapse rate.
Nationally, long-term cure rates for methamphetamine use may be less than 10 percent, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Despite the low success rate, the tribe is committed to offering recovery options to its members. They are determined to fight the meth epidemic plaguing this small community in every way possible. Ed Purcell, director of the tribe’s Alcohol and Drug Treatment Meth Unit, said, “The treatment we offer is currently the best evidence based intervention available.”
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The Run and Rally was the latest in the tribe’s ongoing battle to save their community. Several speakers later met with ICTMN and shared their stories, providing a deeper look at the harrowing struggle to recover from meth.
Eldon, 32, and his wife Chassity, 30, did not volunteer to announce their meth addiction before that crowd at the Run and Rally; they did so as part of their plea agreements. Their two youngest children, ages 3 and 8 tugged at them as they spoke.
Later, back at their home in Two Strike, Chassity said, “I’ve never done this before but I wanted to tell my story because I don’t want to live that life no more,” her voice breaking as she cried. “I’m sorry, but I want to cry all the time.”
Chassity sat tensely on a rough bench in the kitchen before a wall covered with an enormous, dream-like, handpainted mural of an eagle, its wings outspread.
Eldon perched nervously nearby on the kitchen windowsill. The bright sun streamed in behind him, outlining his thin frame.
Chassity and Eldon met over 15 years ago, when they were both in junior high. They spoke fondly of those days and the years following when they married, had three children. They had a house of their own and Eldon had a job, until meth took it all.
“We gave up our home, everything because of meth. We were homeless,” Eldon said.
They are now staying with Chassity’s sister.
Both of them said they have been sober since January, and were recently released from the Rosebud Adult Correctional Facility, where they underwent treatment for meth addiction. Chassity spoke of the daily struggle of staying sober, her anxiety and her bouts of inexplicable anger. Holding her arms tightly around herself, she apologized for the disjointed nature of her story. “I’m sorry, I’m all over the place; I’m so anxious and nervous, I don’t feel good,” she said.
The skin over her elegant Lakota features was stretched tightly across her face as her eyes darted around the room. “They say that meth is made using human sacrifices,” she said. “It’s evil; you can see evil spirits.”
According to research, chronic meth use often leads to psychosis and hallucinations similar to schizophrenia. The belief that meth releases evil spirits that can be seen is common among users. Such hallucinations can continue for months after detox and use.
The couple’s story jumped quickly from gratitude for still having custody of their children and a place to live to anger and resentment. “My eldest girl, 13 is mad at me. When we got out of jail she said, ‘Mom, where were you when I needed you?’” Chassity paused, then added, “I don’t know what she meant by that.”
Her youngest child, a three-year-old boy, entered the room. He nuzzled his face, framed by shiny black hair, deeply under his mother’s arm. He raised her shirt as though to nurse but instead buried his hand in the soft flesh of her belly and closed his eyes.
For a few seconds, the room was quiet.
“Our family hasn’t walked away from us; they believe we can overcome this addiction,” Chassity said.
“We got no phone, no car. We walk everywhere,” she said.
Sometimes Chassity and Eldon walk six miles to the nearest town of St. Francis for sporadic day work.
They maintained that the added demands of their court-ordered plea agreements to seek recovery are nearly impossible to meet. Chassity said that after walking round trip from St. Francis and working, she is often too tired to participate in optional recovery meetings or programs miles away.
They have both agreed to complete several months of treatment outside of jail. Chassity, however, worried about what will happen to her children when they leave for the court-ordered six-month residential treatment program.
“I feel like for every step we go forward, we get knocked back,” Chassity said. “We just really want people to know that although we are addicts, we are still human beings. We hope people can find some understanding for us.”
JDK — The Slinger
On a reservation with an unemployment rate of 85 percent and most available jobs paying less than $10 per hour, selling meth — slinging — is a tempting way to make quick money, according to ex- gang member JDK. Fearful of reprisal from former gang members, he asked to remain anonymous.
“You can really live the high life slinging meth, but it comes at a price,” he said.
Sober for two years, JDK did not go through treatment. Rather, he said, “I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and just couldn’t be a part of that life no more.
“I went to a regular customer’s house to deliver some shard. It was a couple and they looked really bad, thin and covered with sores. Their house was completely empty; they’d sold everything to buy drugs. I sold them their meth and was on my way out when two little kids came into the room. They were filthy. Their Pampers were so full of shit that it ran down their legs. I got mad. I thought of my own little boy, who I love so much. All of a sudden I decided I couldn’t be a part of this no more.
“I bought food and diapers with the money they paid me and brought it back to their house. I hollered at them. ‘What the hell is the matter with you? How can you treat your kids like this?!’
“I realized that I was playing a part in that cycle of abuse in their lives. Right then and there, I decided to quit using and quit slinging,”
JDK now has a job paying less than $10 per hour. “It’s tough sometimes to make do, but I feel a whole lot better about myself.”
He credits his involvement with traditional Lakota culture and spirituality for helping him stay sober. JDK regularly speaks to youth and community groups about his recovery in hopes it may help others find a way out of addiction.
Waging War on Meth
Although she’d spoken so proudly of her two-year sobriety anniversary before the Run and Rally crowd, Wakan Ki Awaicagli, Holy Vessel Woman had since grown shy.
She asked to continue her story where she felt most safe, at a remote spot on the banks of the White River, directly across from an enormous eagle’s nest. Accessing this place required driving several miles over dirt roads and a bone-rattling excursion in her car over open prairie. She and the eagle mother on her nest watched each other closely as she spoke.
“Yesterday was the first time I’d ever done anything like that. For some reason, I felt led to do it,” she said.
During the past two years, her life has been full of such inexplicable actions that seem to be guided by her involvement with Lakota spirituality. For Wakan Ki Awicagli Win, the wonder is that she follows the inexplicable directions without resistance. She had what many recovering addicts describe as a spiritual awakening during her first sweat lodge.
“A lot of amazing things have happened to me since I got sober. I’m not completely sure what the Creator wants of me, but I’m trying to be of help to others as best I can.”
She did not go through treatment for meth addiction; she found healing and support from traditional Lakota spirituality.
Wakan Ki Awicagli Win was recently asked to join the Chante Tinza Warrior Society. The Society is usually all-male, according to Wakan Ki Awicagli Win. She agreed to join because the men asked her to help them in their war against meth. She wages her new war by attending as many recovery events as possible, talking about the dangers of meth and encouraging recovering addicts to attend ceremony.
“We are just starting [the Society], but we want to help the people in any way that we can to get meth out of the community.”
Wakan Ki Awicagli Win described herself as a functioning meth addict for 17 years. Fueled by meth, she often worked two jobs as a bartender/waitress and manager of an overnight cleaning company for offices.
After a long meth binge during which she had terrifying visions of her young son being abused, she decided to quit. She stopped using cold turkey. The detox and withdrawal were painful and frightening. In desperation, she accepted an invitation to participate in a sweat lodge.
“I was afraid of our traditional ways when I was using. I knew that it would be dangerous not only to me but to my family too if I walked that road while continuing to use,” she said.
She has been sober since her first sweat, however, and has been working to spread the word about the dangers of meth and encouraging others to attend ceremony.
Currently, she works as a clerk at a gas station and attends Sinte Gleska University, where she is pursuing her degree in Lakota Studies. Her great dream is to build an eagle aviary to help wounded birds. She is drawn to eagles and finds healing and solace in checking on their nests, seeing that they are unmolested.
“I’m not entirely sure what I am supposed to be doing yet, but I am making myself available and going forward wherever the Creator leads me.”
As an example of her unlikely leadings since sobriety, leaders of the Meth Awareness event asked her to lead the community round dance. “The funny thing is, I don’t even know how to round dance!” she laughed. “I was nervous and unsure but I went ahead and did the best I could. It felt good.”