A rampant heroin and opiate epidemic on the Red Lake Indian Reservation has prompted tribal leaders to declare a public health emergency, seek outside help in addressing the crisis and consider the extraordinary step of banishing tribal members involved in drug dealing.
“The attack by drugs is devastating to the health of our people,” Tribal Council Chairman Darrell Seki said Tuesday. “Families are breaking.”
Overdoses on the northern Minnesota reservation have increased significantly in the past few months, tribal leaders said, adding that the problem has worsened with the arrival of more heroin and more of it laced with deadly fentanyl.
William Brunelle, the band’s director of public safety and police chief, said he couldn’t quantify the number of overdoses in recent months. But Ryan Neadeau Sr., a Red Lake band member and co-chief of Natives Against Heroin, said nearly three dozen people have overdosed in the past six months, including 10 in July. At one point, Neadeau said, the problem was so bad that the local hospital ran out of Narcan, which blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.
The reservation’s growing drug problem mirrors a national trend, but tribal leaders have the power to take immediate action in hopes of stemming the epidemic.
The Red Lake band of nearly 12,000 people includes 7,000 who live on the reservation, said a tribal leader. By declaring a public health emergency earlier in July, tribal leaders hoped to “think outside the box,” Brunelle said.
Reservation police seized five times more heroin and opiates in 2016 than in 2012, he said, noting a huge uptick in the amount of drugs seized in 2015 when authorities busted drug kingpin Omar Sharif Beasley, whose organization trafficked large quantities on the Red Lake and White Earth Indian reservations.
Reservation police already have seized 56.8 grams of heroin and opiates in the first five months of 2017, quickly approaching the 69 grams seized in all of 2016.
“We’ve been making arrests, seizing drugs and taking money for years,” Brunelle said. “We need new ideas to treat the people who are addicted.”
“Incarceration doesn’t help,” Seki said. “We want to be the cure. … The whole tribe has to cooperate and work on this together.”
The epidemic cuts a large swath across the reservation, using valuable resources, destroying families and raising crime rates, tribal leaders said.
“It affects all of us,” said Darwin Sumner, tribal council secretary. “I’m worried about our children and our future. … We’re seeing needles on the playgrounds of our elementary and middle-school children. There’s too much heroin, and we need to take measures to protect our people.”
One step would be to banish band members who deal drugs on the reservation, an extraordinary measure that would suspend the rights and privileges given to tribal members.
Reservation leaders plan to discuss the options and process for doing that at a meeting Aug. 1. Banishment would be a “strong and immediate” message to someone who is poisoning the community, Brunelle said.
The hope is that banished members would get help for addiction, returning to make amends, said Neadeau, a former drug addict who is nine months into sobriety. Neadeau, 25, said he began snorting pills and opiates when he was 11 or 12 and began using heroin when he was 20.
“In the last five years I lost everything,” he said. His addiction cost him his relationship with his children and their mother. “I lost the trust of others and I lost myself. I lost it all.”
On Monday, about 500 people from Minnesota, Colorado, South Dakota and North Dakota joined a 1-mile Walk Against Substance Abuse at Red Lake Reservation to bring awareness to the growing drug epidemic. “The idea was to give those lost and sick and their families hope, courage and strength to say no to dope. To put down drugs. That’s not our native tradition,” Neadeau said, noting that he brought his younger brother, who overdosed two days earlier, to the walk. “I wanted to show him that recovery works for our people.”