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Taking a stand against meth

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Editors’ note: “Taking a stand against meth” is a three-part perspective essay. The material emerges from the Wellbriety Movement conference held in Denver earlier this year.

Part One

It’s no secret that the drug methamphetamine has struck Indian country in a big way. Reports of meth are all over the news media. But more than that, the tragedy it produces is probably right down the road or even closer, inside our own homes. Meth is an equal-opportunity destroyer of individuals, families and communities – but there is hope for recovery and there are solutions.

The Wellbriety Movement conference on methamphetamine met in Denver in late April 2006 to take a stand against meth and to present some of the many solutions that make recovery from meth possible. One after another, a multicultural mix of presenters from all over the nation offered 150 attendees solutions to meth problems in both Indian and non-Indian communities with the bottom-line message – we are not paralyzed! Let’s get to work. Here is what we can do.

The conference featured grass-roots participation in five workshops designed to showcase what’s working at the grass-roots level. Participants then took part in five “discovery circles” that mind-mapped community-based solutions to the problem of methamphetamine. From these workshops and circles, people went back to their communities armed with information and inspiration so their people could take the first step.

The meth problem in Indian communities became a top priority for the National Congress of American Indians at an executive session of that 62-year-old organization held in Washington, D.C., in late February and early March. Fresh from its commitment to do something about meth, the conference was honored to have NCAI’s President Joe Garcia, Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo), deliver an opening address that set the tone for the four-day Wellbriety gathering.

“NCAI will commit to partnership, cooperation, collaboration and united effort,” he said. “The fact that we are here at this conference and also promoting this effort means we can go a lot farther together. … The impact of meth, alcoholism, disease and other substance abuses has been devastating to our communities. But just as the first principle of alcoholism is to quit denying there is a problem, so it is for meth. I think what’s different about meth is that we can’t deny it. It’s too obvious it is devastating our communities. It’s too obvious that something is not right,” he concluded.

This year’s Wellbriety Movement conference was co- sponsored by White Bison Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colo.; the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest of Portland, Ore.; the National Indian Health Board; and the NCAI. The Wellbriety Council of Elders was also present in order to offer the guidance and inspiration of the elders. Council of Elders member Theda New Breast, Blackfeet Nation, set another tone at the opening when she remarked, “We’re about Indians healing Indians. We have to listen to other Indian stories around meth use, meth recovery and how the family got it back together.”

Healing, not war

In the spirit of Indians healing Indians, the meth conference was inspired by a slogan and a solution taking a slightly different road than the mainstream efforts. “No war on drugs, let’s declare healing on meth. Resist, Reach Out, Recover,” said a banner and a T-shirt prominent at the conference. No war on drugs? Why not? Don Coyhis, Mohican Nation and the founder and president of White Bison, explained that in the Indian way, to think of efforts against the effects of methamphetamine as a healing rather than war would bring our thinking more in line with how Native people relate to problems. To heal, rather than to make war, would rally the peoples’ efforts in a more effective manner.

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“I talked to some elders about four months ago,” he said, “and they were explaining to me how things work in the spiritual world. They said that when you declare war on something, each of those words gives an instruction. When you declare war on something, spiritually you actually call the enemy. When somebody pushes on your hand, it pushes back. The very thing you declare war on, you are destined to lose.”

He went on to explain that we must take back our power as Native people in the coming tsunami – the meth epidemic, which is here, now, and growing fast. He said, “Even though the dominant society is a war-declaring entity, we don’t do that. Not for this one. Not for our children. We declare healing. We must demonstrate the right way to solve problems. When something huge comes along that’s a threat to us, we provide healing. So when we arrest someone and they are incarcerated, we provide healing. We try to help them. We try to heal in that way. It’s within our power, it’s within our culture, it’s within the elders’ teachings.”

Education is a first line of prevention and the beginning of healing from meth. What is methamphetamine? How is it different from the other drugs and alcohol that communities have been dealing with for years and years? How does it work? How is it being used? Where does it come from? How does it destroy people? What is the best way to reach out and warn Indian communities about this tsunami of meth?

Community education about meth

Holly Echo Hawk, Pawnee and an advocate for better health care in Native communities, presented part of the education picture about meth. She pointed out that those who have been on the front lines of drug and alcohol healing for years aren’t necessarily up on this new threat. She emphasized that meth is not the same as the leading [pharmaceutical-grade] methadrine or “white cross” of years ago. There is a huge difference between the speed of the past and today’s toxic junk drug. She went on to say that in many Indian communities meth has overtaken alcohol as the most dangerous drug. She revealed that there is a terrific economic incentive to make and push meth, something that separates it from alcohol and other drugs. It is cheap, easy to make and very toxic.

Treatment programs and protocols for meth must also be different than we know them for alcohol and other drugs. Meth addicts a person very quickly and attacks the brain. It impairs the brain’s abilities to change and to learn from experience.

Echo Hawk revealed that many of the alcohol programs just don’t work for meth. She said, “Our alcohol treatment work [group meetings, watching films, reading] and alcohol treatment design is very cognitive. That means it’s very much based on reasoning, intuition and on the thought process. With meth addicts, their brain is different because the drug has impacted their brains. They don’t have that logical thought process ability anymore. We have to change the way we design our programs to match how the brain really works with meth addicts. Program designs that are based on reasoning and the thought process – what’s called a cognitive focus – those kinds of programs won’t work with meth addicts. We have to rethink that part of the treatment.”

The Navajo Nation has an effective, multipronged effort taking place to educate, treat and eliminate the trafficking and use of meth on the reservation. Lynette Willie, Navajo, is the public information officer for the Navajo Nation Department of Behavioral Health Services. It’s her job to educate this 276,000-plus strong community about the enemy in their midst. Her uplifting presentation had two strong messages. The first is about holding to traditional Navajo values and traditions – the Beauty Way – because it can help people survive the attack of meth. The second, education and mobilization of the people as prevention, is very much what her job’s about.

It was necessary to reach out to people in the Navajo language with visual information, community chapter meetings and videos detailing all aspects of meth. Three or four years ago, people simply didn’t know how dangerous the drug was. They didn’t know how it was manufactured or how the youth and others were using it. They didn’t know the warning signs. For example, they didn’t know that it is sometimes given surreptitiously to grandparents by grandchildren caring for them. They didn’t know the truth of methamphetamine is that on your first try, you could die.

The closest word for meth in the Navajo language means “it eats your body.” One of the most successful outreach efforts happened when the local radio station donated time for weekly programs about meth on the rez. Willie shared what happened. She said, “Our radio station, KTNN, donated radio time, an hour every Sunday for two months. For two months, we had a radio show on methamphetamine. We brought people that used and they talked about it. I asked in those interviews if they would have used methamphetamine if they knew what was in it? Every single time, they said no.”

She further revealed that the Navajo tribal government committed to three different tribal goals to heal from meth. These are: Provide information in the Navajo language, establish a clinical protocol for treatment issues in meth and change the laws to make meth illegal in Navajo country.

Don Coyhis, Mohican Nation, is founder and president of White Bison Inc., an American Indian nonprofit organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Its Web site is Richard Simonelli is a freelance writer allied with American Indians in the areas of addiction recovery, education and traditional knowledge. He is a staff associate and media specialist for White Bison.