Tribes say settlement funds will help heal ravages caused by the opioid crisis

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais takes note of the heartbreaking dates reminding Wampanoag families they are still in the midst of the opioid crisis – birthdays of lost loved ones, anniversaries of their deaths. Then she phoned the mourners.

“And then you’re on the other side preparing for another holiday or event that you can’t share because of that,” she said.

Gay Head Aquinnah’s Wampanoag tribe, led by Andrews-Maltais in Massachusetts, was among hundreds of Native American tribes, including in Washington state, who are suing drug manufacturers and distributors for their role in the epidemic. One study found that Native Americans had the highest per capita rate of opioid overdose deaths of any population in 2015.

Andrews-Maltais can imagine 15 deaths in their tribe of around 500 alone.

Tribes this month settled a $590 million settlement with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the three largest US drug distributors. Lawyers representing tribes hope to reach settlements with others in the pharmaceutical industry, including remaining manufacturers and pharmacies.

Last year, the four companies announced a $26 billion settlement with state and local governments to end all lawsuits. An overwhelming majority of governments have agreed; Businesses are scheduled to decide this month if adoption is enough to continue. The agreement with tribes is to be deducted from these agreements.

Each of the 574 state-recognized tribes is entitled to a share of the settlement money. It’s unclear how quickly the money would flow, but it won’t be much and not until 95% of the plaintiff tribes and tribal organizations agree to the settlement.

“Obviously there should have been more,” Andrews-Maltais said. “The ongoing, cumulative impact is generational, and this money will not be generational.”

A special court master and the judge who handled the case must devise a formula for allocating the money. Three enrolled tribal members, well known in the Indian country, will be responsible for administering the funds: Former Secretary of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, Former Acting Director of the Indian Health Service Mary Smith and Kathy Hannan, Chairman of the National Museum of the Board of Trustees of American Indians.

Tribal leaders hope that funding will take into account not only population, but also geographical diversity, access to healthcare, landmass, and tribal needs.

“One yardstick that unfortunately applies to the vast majority of tribes is that they are disproportionately affected by opioids, alcohol and other chemical-producing problems that they have had a very difficult history with,” said Geoffrey Strommer, whose firm represented some tribes in the settlement.

A 236-page court document filed in the case laid out startling statistics for tribes related to drug-related crimes and deaths, noting a long history — including federal government attempts to integrate Native Americans into white society — the has contributed to generations of trauma. Most tribes have struggled financially to deal with the opioid crisis through law enforcement, courts, social services, and health care.

Tribal law enforcement agencies said in the court filings that they need to train more officers on how to handle prescription and synthetic drugs and equip them with overdose treatment tools.

In Sequim plans to help with addiction

Tribes have turned to wellness or healing centers to treat people with opioid addiction, their families, and the larger community. In Sequim, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe – who will eventually receive settlement funds – is building a holistic health center in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains and near the headwaters of the Duwamish River.

It will serve up to 300 people per day, both tribal and non-tribal members struggling with addiction. Shuttle services are available for those who need a lift and childcare. The plans include a water feature at the front that will reinforce a traditional story about being able to change the course of a river by moving a stone.

The tribe has also funded a full-time community worker who will be integrated into the police department to address concerns in the wider community about patients and drug-related crimes.

“Sometimes visually people think that these types of treatment centers will become a magnet for drug dealers and the downside of this industry,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of Jamestown S’Klallam. “And it’s not that. It’s an inversion of that. They are designed to be highly secure, highly secure, highly monitored and fully focused on helping these individuals get well.”

Joshua Carver, who received services from the tribe to help overcome a heroin addiction, helped install some of the center’s artwork as part of his tribal building work.

His mother, Shawna Priest, saw it as a progression from taking oxycodone for back problems, to heroin, to being hospitalized on the brink of an overdose and doing a six-month home detox before recovering four years ago.

Her daughter has also struggled with addictions, including a relapse after losing a newborn, but has recovered and is working at a tribal casino. Priest was terrified of taking medication after undergoing ankle surgery last April and wondered if it would make her addicted. She tells her family’s story to give hope to others.

“You can do this. You can be successful,” she said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Leonard Forsman, leader of the neighboring Suquamish tribe, said he was glad that major drug manufacturers and distributors were being blamed for the opioid epidemic, although neither admitted wrongdoing in the settlement. The tribe plans to use the money to support cultural resurgence, which it says has been “the most effective way to prevent addiction and promote recovery.”

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma said it will use the funds to expand mental health treatment and related services.

Kristopher Peters, a former police officer for the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state, said he’s seen good people lose their jobs, destroy their families, hurt others and die from opioid addiction. Incarceration is not the answer, and treatment often fails the first time.

“We don’t expect the funds provided to solve our problems or buy us out of this epidemic,” said Peters, now chief of the tribe. “That alone will not heal anyone.”

Cultural gatherings like the Puget Sound tribal canoeing and potlatches — ceremonial festivals where gifts are given — are part of the equation, he said.

“I’ve seen people who are absolutely addicted and are struggling with crime on this canoe trip, and they’re completely different people,” he said. “Connection with their traditional ways. It heals.”

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Felicia Fonseca reported from Arizona and Ted Warren from Washington. Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill of New Jersey also contributed to this report.

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