As the opioid epidemic grips the nation, how are specific minority groups being affected? They're much worse off, it turns out. At least in the case of the Cherokee Nation.
Across the country, tens of thousands of people are abusing prescription opioids and dying because of it. Within the Cherokee Nation, the tribe's cherished traditions, stories and memories are dying off with them. These are traditions that have been handed down through generations. But as more and more Cherokee babies are born to addicted parents and adopted outside of the Cherokee nation, those traditions are being lost.
The rate of drug-related deaths among American Indian and Alaska Native people had quadrupled since 1999, according to the Indian Health Service. And Oklahoma, which is home to the 120,000 citizens of Cherokee Nation, leads the country in prescription opioid abuse.
Babies are even being born already-addicted. Todd Hembree, the attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, said he kept hearing about babies in opioid withdrawal and children with addicted parents. They were being removed from their families, and adopted into non-native families.
He was quoted about it in news articles, saying: “We have addicted mothers and fathers who don’t give a damn about what their children will carry on,” he said. “They can’t care for themselves, much less anything else. We are losing a generation of continuity.”
The problem has driven him into a legal battle against big opioid distributors. He filed his case against pharmacy chains in the Cherokee Nation’s tribal court. He’s suing Walmart, Walgreens, CVS Health, and big drug distributors like McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
He claims these companies have skirted drug-monitoring laws and allowed prescription opioids to flow into the Cherokee territory at some of the highest rates in the country. It’s led to the exploitation of his people, he argues. The drug companies know the epidemic is thriving in Cherokee Nation, and so they direct their product there, he says.
The pharmacy chains claim the lawsuit has no merit. Their role is to dispense the medications which are prescribed by physicians, they said. They claim they’re also trying to combat the opioid crisis.
It’s likely the case will go to tribal court. For the Cherokee, the legal battle is fundamentally about protecting their identity and survival as a tribe. They want to preserve their language, traditions, and stories.
And now, pharmacies and the distributors are asking the federal court for an injunction to stop the case from going forward. They implied in filings that they would not be treated fairly in a tribal court.
While the tribe awaits a decision, it is trying to anchor tribal identity within its opioid treatments.
Interventions are often marinated in Cherokee references. Drug abuse counselors ask patients about their family’s last names, or their ancestors’ lands. When they go to drug rehabilitation centers, treatment can include making flutes, bowls, drums, attending a sweat lodge and practicing stomp dancing.
And children in foster care are also being taught traditional practices in an effort to preserve them. They hang out with a golden retriever puppy named Unali, which is Cherokee for “friend.” They read Cherokee fables and learn basket-making and weaving from the National Treasures – which are Cherokee elders dedicated to preserving the tribe’s traditions.
Officials mention that they lost a lot of their identity during the Trail of Tears, when huge tribal populations were wiped out. Now, the opioid epidemic is doing the same thing.