Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke learned more about the opioid epidemic in Indian Country during a visit with the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin on March 20, 2018. "Heartbreaking to see the @OneidaNationWI community hurt by the #OpioidCrisis," Zinke wrote in a post on Twitter. Photo: Secretary Zinke

Navajo Nation joins parade of tribal lawsuits targeting opioid industry

What started off as a single lawsuit filed by one of the two largest tribes in the United States has turned into a full-blown movement against the opioid industry.

Ever since the Cherokee Nation first tested the waters in April 2017, tribes in nearly every region of Indian Country have joined the cause. The latest with a lawsuit is the Navajo Nation, whose leaders are seeking to hold drug manufacturers responsible for the flow of opioid on their homelands in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“For generations, Native Americans have disproportionately suffered during health crises, and the opioid crisis is no different,” President Russell Begaye said on Wednesday as the tribe filed a complaint in New Mexico. “We aren’t going to sit back and let our community be torn apart while our children are suffering.”

Together, the Cherokees and the Navajos represent the two largest federally recognized tribes, in terms of citizenship. But they aren't alone in their fight against some of the largest pharmacies, drug manufacturers and drug distributors in the nation.

Just last week, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed suit in Wisconsin. Child welfare, health, foster care and other costs have "skyrocketed" in recent years, due to the influx of dangerous opioids in the tribal community, officials said.

“The prescription opioids epidemic has been building for years and is a current and ongoing nuisance on the property and to the lives of Lac Du Flambeau residents,” President Joseph Wildcat, Sr. said on the heels of the tribe's complaint.

With the litigation, tribes and their advocates have cited devastating statistics about the epidemic. In South Dakota, for example, 28 percent of patients treated for opioid use disorder were Native in 2015 and 2016. During that same time frame, 17.8 percent of people who died from opioids were Native.

“The opioid epidemic affects nearly every tribal member in the state, and the impact on tribes in the South Dakota region has been devastating,” said Brendan Johnson, a former federal prosecutor, whose law firm is representing the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in separate cases that were filed in the last three months.

The Yurok Tribe is dealing with similar struggles. According to general counsel Amy Cordalis, drug companies have enjoyed free reign to spread their drug in and around the reservation in northern California for too long.

“The only difference between these companies and drug cartels is the fact that legal purveyors of prescription opioids have protection from law enforcement and seemingly unlimited funds to market and distribute to the masses their highly addictive drugs," Cordalis, who is a Yurok citizen, said after the tribe went to court last month. "There is not a single Yurok family that has not either directly or indirectly experienced the horrors of opiate addiction.”

Tribal leaders first brought the issue to the attention of the federal government almost three years ago. At a July 2015 hearing, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was told that opiate addiction represented the “21st century version of smallpox blankets.”

"More than 28 percent of the babies born addicted to opiates are Native American even though we are only about 2 percent of the population," Melanie Benjamin, the chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians from Minnesota, testified at the time.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on "Opioids in Indian Country: Beyond the Crisis to Healing the Community"

Federal officials, including President Donald Trump himself, are indeed taking notice. Secretary Ryan Zinke met with eight tribes in Washington, Wisconsin and Arizona in the last few weeks to learn how the Department of the Interior can help them address the epidemic.

“While the opioid crisis affects every community in America, more often than not, tribal communities are disproportionately affected,” Zinke said after a visit in Washington with the Spokane Tribe.

On the legal front, the Department of Justice intends to boost tribal, state and local efforts by filing a statement of interest in court on behalf of the United States.

“We will seek to hold accountable those whose illegality has cost us billions of taxpayer dollars,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Tribes have made no secret about seeking “financial resources,” as Lac du Flambeau President Wildcat put it, to help them address the costs of the crisis. By being at the table with lawsuits, they hope to avoid what happened in the 1990s, when states entered into a master settlement agreement with the tobacco industry but left Indian Country out of the picture. That deal was worth at least $206 billion but tribes don't get any of the funds.

“This lawsuit is part of our tribe’s effort to combat the opioid crisis that not only harms tribal members, but puts great strain on the tribe’s provision of health, AODA, and law enforcement services,” said Chairman Douglas Cox of the Menominee Nation, which filed suit in Wisconsin last month. He was referring to the high costs of alcohol and other drug abuse treatment services.

On the funding front, the Trump administration is hoping Congress will go along with a proposal to create a new $150 million grant program at the Indian Health Service. The money would be awarded, on a competitive basis, to tribes and Indian organizations to address opioid abuse prevention, treatment and recovery support.

According to Michael Weahkee, the “acting” director of the IHS, the effort is modeled after the successful Special Diabetes Program for Indians, which has resulted in concrete gains in the fight against the preventable disease. Yet Congress has been reluctant to allocate funding for the initiative, with the most recent extension only going for the next two years.

But with opioids garnering bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill, Congress set aside some more immediate resources. The $1.3 trillion #Omnibus spending bill that became law last month provides $50 million for opioid grants in Indian Country. Those funds are coming from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the National Indian Health Board reported.

The #Omnibus set aside another $5 million, also from SAMHSA, to help tribes with medication-assisted treatment and recovery support services, NIHB said.

"While this epidemic is impacting many communities throughout America, it has disproportionately impacted tribes and has further strained the limited public health and healthcare resources available to tribes," Samuel Moose, the treasurer of NIHB, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at a hearing on opioids last month.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Indian Country sees 'real progress' with $1.3 trillion spending bill (March 26, 2018)
Cronkite News: Tribes hit hard by opioid crisis but federal support remains elusive (March 20, 2018)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs convenes hearing on opioids (March 14, 2018)
Tribes sound alarms about rise in heroin overdose cases in Wisconsin (March 6, 2018)
Indian Health Service budget promises funding for opioid epidemic (February 13, 2018)
Indian Health Service enters another year without permanent leader (January 25, 2018)
Tribes continue battles against drug companies amid a setback in court (January 17, 2018)
Choctaw Nation citizen taking oath of office as top federal prosecutor in Oklahoma (December 12, 2017)
Bill John Baker: Cherokee Nation battles opioid epidemic among our people (August 2, 2017)