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Fighting meth in Indian Country a top priority
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

After decades of focusing their attention on alcohol abuse, tribal nations have been hit with a new danger in recent years.

Methamphetamine, or meth, has taken hold on reservations across Indian Country. The drug, typically imported from Mexico but sometimes produced in labs on tribal lands, has contributed to already-high crime rates, torn apart families and put a strain underfunded law enforcement, health and social service programs.

"Meth is killing our children, affecting our cultures and ravaging our communities," Joe Garcia, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

At NCAI's winter session in Washington, D.C., meth was perhaps the single biggest issue discussed among tribal leaders. Many shared their experiences in dealing with the drug and its devastating effects.

"In my family, we had 33 family members expire to alcohol," said Kathleen Kitcheyan, the chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona. "Now we have something that's even more dangerous in our community. Crystal meth has really hit our reservation very, very hard."

Kitcheyan tied meth abuse to 120 suicide attempts and 84 suicides on the reservation since 2002. Last year, she said 63 babies were born with meth in their systems.

Darrell Hillaire, the chairman of the Lummi Nation of Washington, reported similar problems. He said 41 percent of the 1,200 children born on the reservation in the last 10 years have been affected by drugs like meth.

"That's unacceptable," said Hillaire, whose tribe was recently featured in a front-page New York Times story about a tribal member who oversaw a drug ring that smuggled meth into Washington from Canada.

The Lummi Nation has made fighting meth a top priority for the past four years, and has banished drug traffickers from the reservation, burned down a house that was used to sell drugs and opened a youth treatment facility and a youth safe house. Since January 2004, 21 people have been charged with trafficking, resulting in 15 convictions and five pending trials.

But Hillaire said addressing the law enforcement side of the battle won't solve the problem alone. "Let's take this on as wellness issue," he said, calling the federal government's war on drugs a failure. "Indian people have a chance to set an example for the country by focusing on this as a wellness issue."

Although tribal leaders shared similar struggles with meth, their approach to dealing with the drug, and enforcement issues in general, differed. Many said prevention should be the main focus in preventing people -- especially youth -- from abusing drugs.

"A lot of it is empowering our youth to come up with solutions of their own," said Brian Wallace, the chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, who brought his son to the conference.

In Minnesota, the Red Lake Nation recently pulled out of a drug task force out of fear its sovereignty was being encroached, said chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. Coupled with comments in The New York Times story that accused him of hindering drug investigations, Jourdain said he is being viewed as "anti-enforcement" and "difficult."

"These collaborations, these task forces, have to be approached very carefully," he said, citing an example of an attempt to enforce state law on tribal lands. Although Minnesota is a Public Law 280 state, Red Lake does not fall under the act so the state has no criminal or civil jurisdiction there.

But other tribal leaders, while not referring specifically to Jourdain or the Red Lake Nation, dismissed those kinds of concerns. Dennis Smith, the vice chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada and Idaho, said tribes need all the help they can get to fight meth.

"Some of the tribes are using sovereignty, to me, as an excuse to not let state troopers come on to the reservation," Smith said. "As far as I'm concerned, that is an excuse because there are ways of coming up with a memorandum of agreement or memorandum of understanding with the state and county."

Smith said it was unrealistic for tribes to engage in battle alone or rely on the federal government. "The Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn't have the manpower and will never work," he warned. So developing partnerships with local and state governments is a sensible solution, he said.

At the conference, key members of Congress and federal officials praised tribes for focusing on meth. "A lot of us recognize the devastating effect meth has had on Indian Country," said Tom Heffelfinger, who stepped down as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota last week.

As part of a new initiative, NCAI is urging tribes to develop laws and policies to fight meth use, asking the White House to develop a program to address meth and drug enforcement in Indian Country and is calling on Congress to hold hearings to focus on the problem.

"I commend you for issuing a call to action address meth use and drug trafficking on reservations," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He said the committee will hold hearings to address the issue.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Montana Meth Project - http://www.montanameth.org
Methamphetamine Facts, National Institute on Drug Abuse - http://www.nida.nih.gov/Infofacts/methamphetamine.html

Related Stories:
Update from NCAI winter session in Washington (02/28)
NCAI meets in Washington for winter session (02/27)
Drug trafficking ring busted on Pine Ridge Reservation (02/24)
Editorial: Canada to blame for reservation drugs (2/23)
Jourdain blasts comments in NYT story on drugs (2/21)
NY Times: Drug trafficking in Indian Country (2/20)
Tom Heffelfinger to step down as U.S. Attorney (02/15)
Garcia turns to Four Directions to guide Indian Country (02/03)
Tribal judge expected to enter plea in drug case (01/31)
St. Croix Band hears dangers of methamphetamine (01/19)
Chippewa Cree Tribe launches anti-meth campaign (01/12)
Tribe's public defender held on meth charges (01/04)
Tribe's public defender charged in meth conspiracy (12/21)
Lummi Nation burns house that was used to sell drugs (12/02)
Opinion: Tribes, state to combat meth problem (11/28)
Washoe Tribe joins fight against meth (11/01)
Crow Chairman: 'We have a meth epidemic' (10/26)
Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe hosts meth summit (10/07)
NAIHC expands program to deal with meth problem (09/29)
U.S. claims 400 meth arrests in 'Operation Wildfire' (08/31)
Washoe Tribe says meth invading communities (08/18)
Methamphetamine called a big problem for tribes (8/11)
Navajo Nation counts 32 active gangs, 500 members (08/05)
Reservation meth dealer given life prison sentence (07/08)
Nevada tribe concerned about methamphetamine use (06/22)
Plan seeks to combat meth problem in Montana (03/22)
Navajo police find methamphetamine in car (03/04)
Meth use a serious problem among Native youth (02/25)
Officials praise Navajo methamphetamine law (2/21)
Navajo Nation Council passes methamphetamine law (02/14)
Methamphetamine use explodes on reservation (2/7)
Idaho tribe to sign law enforcement agreement (02/03)
Navajo Nation peyote, meth legislation on hold (11/11)
Reservations called breeding ground for meth (11/08)
Navajo community worried about meth trafficking (10/20)
Film to expose dangers of meth on Navajo Nation (06/17)
Task force cracks drug rings in Indian Country (06/07)
Authorities bust drug ring on Oklahoma tribal land (05/06)
Calif. tribe, local police break up drug ring (01/29)
Tribe turns to banishment to battle drugs (1/19)

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