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Summit explores ways of fighting meth addiction

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Treatment, traditions needed to end 'epidemic'

BISMARCK, N.D. - Tribes from the Great Plains gathered at a recent methamphetamine summit to exchange ideas about combating one of the fastest-growing problems on many reservations.

Tribal leaders have for many years asked the federal government for more funding to improve and expand law enforcement, to increase the numbers and improve treatment facilities and add more counselors. Now they are taking matters into their own hands and exchanging ideas about what to do about what some of the leaders called a growing epidemic.

The summit, held at the Lewis Goodhouse Wellness Center on the campus of United Tribes Technical College, attracted more than 140 participants from 11 tribes from as far away as California.

The focus of the summit was the challenges that meth addiction poses for tribal workers in the health, law enforcement and treatment professions. One method used to combat meth use in young people is education, and that comes from family, experts, educators and elders.

A former user and now national speaker on drug use and its effects told his story about a life on drugs. Other speakers at the summit brought their expertise and ideas for solutions to the problem - including a more traditional approach.

David Parnell, an Arkansas Cherokee, has attempted suicide twice: once he tried to hang himself and the second time he used an assault rifle while his wife was present. He is a former drug user who went from marijuana to cocaine and ended up on methamphetamine before changing his life.

''The last seven years of using drugs, I was on meth; it destroyed myself and my family. I had become violent; my wife caught the brunt, I was very abusive toward her and I'm ashamed now,'' Parnell said.

He told his story to the tribal summit, just as he tells young people across the country and in Canada. His focus is on trying to deter young people who have never started with drugs from starting. Those who have already started, he attempts to convince them that they can quit and recover.

''I was extremely paranoid; I would hallucinate; I saw shadows when I walked around and became very suicidal,'' he said.

''I have had 40 surgeries and am disfigured and I'm now devoting my life to making wise choices,'' he said.

''The end results with meth use, whether on or off the reservations, is it usually kills them - it destroys the whole family, they are tortured daily, they really suffer,'' Parnell said.

Parnell encourages a user to go to treatment, attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings a couple of times a week and - especially - cut ties with the people they are running with.

''I got away from the people I was using with. All the other times I would bottom out, I would go back to my buddies,'' he said.

His suggestion to the summit was education at an early age, before the youth start using.

Another method of changing the way people live abusive lives is to return to the traditional tribal ways and beliefs.

Arikara elder Russell Gillette said spirituality has been taken out of the picture.

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''That inner spirituality had the healing effect that could restore us spiritually and economically.

''It all stems from how we feel inside. Your feelings are what generates your attitudes. A lot of people don't understand the abstracts of feelings; that's where the alcohol comes in - you think things are going good, but they aren't,'' Gillette said.

Family values at one time drove the behavior of youth, but today there are many dysfunctional families; young people see bad behavior and think it is a family value.

To change that, the elders must get involved, Gillette said. The elders know the way and can teach the young people, but they have to be asked in a special way and people can't be impatient with results, Gillette said.

''Spiritual people are happy people, that's what I try to teach the students; but it's up to the individual to decide what we want to do.

''And the one thing we have to learn is respect, we have to respect ourselves and others,'' Gillette said.

Parnell agreed with Gillette about the spirituality and he said it doesn't matter what method is used to gain that spirituality - it is necessary in order to move away from drug use.

''I got out, it was spiritual, I owe everything to the Creator. I believe without that drive for a higher power to help me I couldn't have done it,'' Parnell said.

Parnell said educating kids at a young age is important. ''Education and knowledge are power.''

He said many youth where he speaks come up to him and write him to say that if they had known that meth and drugs were so harmful they wouldn't have tried them.

Parnell started using marijuana and progressed through the popular street drugs, looking for a different or better high, until he found meth.

''Once I started using meth I knew that was my drug of choice.

''I remember when meth wasn't in my neighborhood and all my friends used pot and all moved to meth when it came out,'' he said.

He said he only met two people who went straight to meth.

''I want to tell parents that there is hope and not to quit praying. There is hope people can live a productive life, my mother prayed for 23 years.

''I also want to tell parents that it's not their fault. Sometimes they blame themselves for what happened, it's not their fault,'' he said.

Parnell's Web site is