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Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan, Chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, came to Washington last week and told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee -- or at least, the four senators who attended -- about what's happening on her reservation. Wesley-Kitcheyan had mixed feelings about airing the dirty laundry, she said, but police and other local services are overwhelmed, and the tribe is at risk of losing the spirit of its ancestors to the drug. She has 55 grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews, she said, stopping once to compose herself. "I lost one about two years ago on the Tohono O'odham Reservation. A champion, a rodeo champion. He won over 26 buckles. He won over six saddles. The wrong choices cost him his life. He was doing drugs, drinking and was engaged in human smuggling because of the lack of employment."

Washington Looks at Meth in Indian Country

Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan, Chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, came to Washington last week and told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee — or at least, the four senators who attended — about what’s happening on her reservation.

For starters:

*A baby was born with a deformed pelvis and legs and no feet to a 14-year-old meth user, the Arizona Republic reported.
*A meth-addicted baby was born with legs that are numb and will likely never be usable.
*About a month ago, a pregnant woman on meth was arrested and gave birth in jail to a premature baby, who died.
*Two years ago, a meth-using mother killed her own little boy, saying later that he was the “devil” and “possessed.”
*In late 2005, a 9-year-old meth user was admitted to the San Carlos hospital with hallucinations and violent behavior. “We are worried that kids even younger are doing meth,” said Wesley-Kitcheyan.

And it goes on: One in four pregnant women testing positive for meth; half of all newborns testing positive for drugs or alcohol; 101 suicide attempts in 2004; even 106 cases of arson.

Wesley-Kitcheyan had mixed feelings about airing such dirty laundry, she said, but police and other local services are overwhelmed, and the tribe is at risk of losing the spirit of its ancestors to the drug. She has 55 grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews, she said, stopping once to compose herself. “I lost one about two years ago on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. A champion, a rodeo champion. He won over 26 buckles. He won over six saddles. The wrong choices cost him his life. He was doing drugs, drinking and was engaged in human smuggling because of the lack of employment.”

The stories from across the West stretch our comprehension. As nations without effective government become havens for wrongdoers, so problems in Indian country make it attractive to predatory drug dealers.

Matthew Mead, the U.S. Attorney for Wyoming, had a nasty list of meth stories as well. The Goodman drug clan dealt more than a pound of meth a month (plus cocaine, marijuana, and prescription pills) on the Wind River Reservation, servicing 20 to 50 buyers a day. Even a tribal judge pleaded guilty in that case, along with more than 20 members of a single family, Mead told the panel in his written testimony.

Then there’s Jesus Sagaste-Cruz and his gang. According to Mead, Sagaste-Cruz and his buddies read a Denver Post story about the bleak town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, a two-mile stumble from Pine Ridge Village on the famously tough Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — a “dry” reservation, where alcohol sales and possession are prohibited, but are smuggled in from Whiteclay. The little stores in Whiteclay made millions, the paper said. So Sagaste-Cruz and his crew plotted to give free meth to Indians to get them addicted. According to Mead, the gang, who figured they would blend in with the Lakota, even took up with local women and fathered children, all to get the moms addicted to the drug so they’d sell it to pay for it.

BIA Director William Ragsdale told the senators he heard of police officers on some reservations being intimidated by the drug gangs. “As a former police officer, I found that hard to believe,” he said. But he spoke to some officers, “none of whom were cowards, freely admitting that they were intimidated, that the magnitude of drug trafficking and illegal immigration into Indian Country in some areas had overcome their ability to provide proper response.”

The Senators

Was anyone listening? John McCain, the panel’s chairman, was called away to leadership meetings on the doomed immigration bill, leaving the gavel to the vice chairman North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan

Dorgan, who has held field hearings in North Dakota on both meth use and suicide in Indian Country, also welcomed Conrad Burns, although Burns isn’t a member of the Indian Affairs Committee. Back when I worked on Dorgan’s DC staff, I saw this alliance in action frequently, especially on funding for Indian programs, what with the pair as serving as the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Burns noted with sensitivity the poverty and lack of treatment options in Indian Country. “In addition, treatment for meth addiction often takes place off-reservation, meaning that in order to receive help. Montana’s Indian youth are taken out of the country that they know and are placed in communities dominated by non-tribal members,” Burns said, reading from a prepared statement. “However, this situation represents the best that we can offer under the current circumstances.”

Indian Country Today has an analysis of the politics of meth as revealed by the hearing. And for skeptics of the crisis, Slate offers an analysis here.

The senators and witnesses discussed some legislative tinkering to the methamphetamine crisis — more funding for prevention and enforcement programs, and adding tribes and territories to the entities that qualify for anti-meth grants in the recently amended Patriot Act, and tribal eligibility for programs related to the effects of meth on children, pregnant women and girls, and mothers.

Solutions Old and New

As always, those involved in fighting meth want to offer some hope and some innovative approaches with limited funds. Jefferson Keel, Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma and First Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, cited culturally appropriate treatment centers, like the White Bison and one Sky Center in Oregon. On the Cherokee Reservation, a traditional children’s marble game has been adapted in a campaign, “Use your marbles, don’t use meth.” And the National American Indian Housing Council has trained 2,000 people in meth lab identification and safety, providing tribes with the kind of benefit they never really wanted — saving money by doing their own meth lab cleanups. And the Lummi Nation in Washington has used its power of “banishment,” Keel said.

On the San Marcos Apache Reservation, Wesley-Kitcheyan said steps have included a tribal meth forum in March, including extensive education for tribal employees; a media campaign; and improvements in interagency cooperation like having the Arizona Highway Patrol back on the reservation’s highways. They’ve also started a drug testing program for tribal employees, “which, as you probably understand, is not very popular.”

Regular old government, of course, is offering its regular old solutions. Mead, the Wyoming U.S. Attorney, noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales went to the Yakama Reservation in Washington recently to highlight the problem. On that March 29 visit, Gonzalez also announced a “cold case” initiative to tackle unsolved murders on the reservation. And a Native American subcommittee of attorneys just met in Coeur d’Alene and hammered out a “best practices” document, Mead said.

For all these offerings, maybe the most innovative was the one touted by Burns — the Montana Meth Project, bankrolled by Silicon Valley tycoon and sometime Montanan Thomas Seibel, that features hard-hitting, stomach-turning depictions of meth use. Burns praised the program, referring to Seibel only as “a private party,” and mentioned that the project had just been featured on Nightline.

“He wrote a great big check—to do a survey, to do focus group, and then to pay marketing people out of San Francisco to produce the ads,” Burns said. “Yes, he has enough money to burn a wet mule, but his heart’s in the right place. And he stepped up to the plate and wrote a great big check.”

Burns said the ads are so tough a woman in his church confronted him, wanting them pulled. “They’re too tough,” she said, according to Burns. “In fact, we had to talk to our kids about them.”

The Most Comprehensive Meth Legislation Ever

Congress did have one high-profile piece of anti-meth legislation this year. The “Combat Meth Act,” sponsored in the Senate by Jim Talent, a Republican from the nation’s leader in meth lab busts for four years running, Missouri, and Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who professed embarrassment that criminals from her state, California, were responsible for spreading the drug into the rest of America.

Talent and Feinstein said the Act provides treatment funding and new enforcement tools. Much of the public may notice the provision that took effect April 8 and deals with the sales of cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamine, although most meth in West comes from Mexico, not from the infamous meth labs.

“Everything goes behind the counter, and people are going to have to sign for it. For grocery stores — big stores like Safeway — that don’t have pharmacists, they have to create another place where this can happen.” Feinstein explained, adding a shout-out to the retail giants and their leaders for not blocking the measure. “What did happen is major retailers recognized the problem. And this really goes to, sort of, the CEO, who sees a problem and says, ‘Look, you can’t let this happen, Let’s just do it.’ Long’s and Target and Wal-Mart all stepped up to the plate.”

Feinstein and Talent remain committed to keeping pseudoephedrine from the clutches of meth cooks. The restrictions even apply to gelcaps and liquid forms of pseudoephedrine, Talent said; even though those are not now processed for meth; they wanted to stay ahead of the criminals. And Talent said that in Europe, they have cold medicine with phenylephrine instead, which he said is 90 percent as effective as pseudoephedrine.

Talent said the legislation putting cold medicine behind counters was modeled after an Oklahoma law, leading in some places to a 70 to 90 percent reduction in meth labs. In his view, this is major stuff.

Whether it will help stop the mountains of meth coming across the Mexican border into places like San Carlos is another issue, but Talent made clear he wasn’t going to let such questions ruin his victory dance.

“This was the most comprehensive anti-meth bill ever introduced in Congress, much less passed,” he said.

About Sanjay Talwani

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6 comments

  1. Very sad to read this article

  2. Teaching centers like that which “Mantanka” a cermonial place that is in Arkansas and its web site has so much of traditions that could keep the ailing Native American people busy for some time. Programs with the languages the buffalo and horses make all the difference..Come forth Native American Leaders, Elder and shamen listen to what the Great Mystery is telling that teaching must unite and Heal those that are wandering…AHO

  3. this was the lead story on the Indian Country Today republications

  4. I think this article is very sad, but interesting. It tells us pople dont care about there health. I do!!!!!!!!!!!! I know that we can not stop people from doing meth or prevent it but we need to try harder.

  5. I think that this article says that we don’t care about our reservations and that we need to put a stop to all the deaths that involve meth!
    I know that it would be hard to stop people from taking meth but I think that it would be worth a shot to do a whole documentary on it!
    This article make me think more and more about how terrible it is to take meth when you are at such a young age or any age!
    It also makes me think about how lucky I am to have such great parents and have people that actually care abot me!
    I hope that you take my advise and do something about this because they are no different that us.

    Mimmi

    ps- If you don’t take this problem into your own hands than i suggest that you put yourself in their shoes!

  6. well police should toughin up on people…huh