Notes from Indian Country
Curing the problems that seem incurableAre things any better for Native Americans addicted to drugs and alcohol in 2020 than they were in 2010? I often write that the more things change in Indian Country the more they stay the same. For example ninety-five percent of the more than 20,000 Native Americans living off the reservation in Rapid City are hard-working and law abiding citizens. It deeply wounds all of us when we see our fellow Lakota’s getting caught up in deadly car wrecks while under the influence of alcohol because it is a reflection upon all of us and we know that the average white citizen of Rapid City thinks that most of us are druggies and alcoholics. Innocent children are often the victims in these accidents. But it seems to us that these terrible happenings are occurring with much more frequency. Indians are involved in street fights, stabbings, and deadly domestic violence that reflect poorly upon all of the Lakota people residing in the border towns and cities of this state. The number one contributor to nearly all of these gruesome and deadly events is alcohol and drugs. It all comes down to the point that it is the individual Native American who must take the responsibility of not consuming alcohol or using drugs. For years my newspapers have been editorializing that a massive influx of money must be available to the health providers to create a cadre of trained professionals to attack this deadly problem from the ground up. There is no other solution. The consumption of alcohol and the use of drugs is a disease and it must be attacked as a disease. Locking Native Americans up in jails and prisons does not cure the problem, but may even contribute to it. One does not cure a disease by locking up a sick person. One cures a disease by going to the roots of the problems and finding a cure. There have been many good Lakota who saw this problem as a disease and attempted to cure it; people like Melvin “Dickie” Brewer and Glen Three Stars fought it with all of their might as counselors, but they could never secure the adequate funding to give it the all-out effort needed to kill the disease. They only got crumbs to fight it with and you can’t cure an ingrained disease with crumbs. And so once more we turn to the Indian Health Service and to our elected representatives to please, please send your experts out to Indian Country and give them the tools to cure the disease (alcoholism and drug addiction) that are the number one destroyers of Native Americans. With a massive effort, the job can be accomplished. We are sick and tired of seeing the lives of our friends and family members demolished because of a curable disease. And the criminal actions of those Natives addicted to these substances that cause the disease are the main reason that more than 35 percent of those incarcerated in our jails and prisons are Native Americans.
Even though many of those charged with DUI’s hold jobs and are supporting a family it makes no difference to the white judges and juries who consider the only solution is more prison time. If this sounds racist so be it, but it is the truth. In all of my years as a newspaper editor I have seen the unfair and racist approach in our court system. An action that would get a white suspect a mere slap on the wrist gets too many Natives time behind bars and what is worse one can find Natives sitting in jails across South Dakota for much longer sentences than whites charged with the same crime. This is not a theory, it is a fact. I could write an entire chapter on the historic trauma that has brought so many Native Americans to the point where drugs and alcohol seems to be their only respite. I am sure that Native American judges and juries would better understand these underlying problems and treat them accordingly. But there are no Native judges in our South Dakota court system (except on the Indian reservations) and Natives are seldom chosen to sit in a jury box. They say you can’t cure a problem by throwing more money at it, but the disease caused by drugs and alcohol in Indian Country has had little money thrown at it because if this had been the case, perhaps we would have found a cure by now.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is the founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Content copyright © Tim Giago
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