The Meth Wave Is Crashing Down on Indian Country, Sweeping Away Lives and Dreams
He snorted his first line of dope when he was 15. He remembers the day. He ran with the older boys, and they tried to look out for him by refusing to “rail him up.” They told him, “You better not.” But it wasn’t long before his “bros” caved to his curiosity. Nor was it long before he stopped snorting, and started shooting, his poison. He spent the next 21 years incarcerated or on the run, battling an addiction that swept his youth away like powder in the wind.
Today, Michael is 38 years old with long black hair, salted gray. With 11 children and another on the way, he surrounds himself with “support people” and drenches himself in spirituality to stay healthy. With tattoos peeking above his coat collar, he spoke calmly about his journey to recovery and his drive to be a good father. Looking back, he says he wasted most of his life on drugs. “I’ve never been off of parole,” he said. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his face. He has 23 months drug-free.
Michael caught the meth wave like thousands of people throughout the U.S. during the 1980s. He, like so many youth on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northwest California, stood little chance against the drug. By 1990, methamphetamine—a.k.a. speed, crank, crystal, dope—was considered epidemic in the rural west and Hoopa was no exception. A 2006 Bureau of Indian Affairs report claims American Indians have higher rates of methamphetamine abuse than any other ethnic group—nearly three times higher than whites.
Meth abuse rates have reached 30 percent on some rural Indian reservations, and in some Indian communities as many as 65 percent of all documented cases involving child neglect and placement of children in foster care can be traced back to parental involvement with methamphetamine. California Indian Legal Services estimates that in nearly every case they oversee that involves a child being removed from their home, one or both of the parents is using meth. Often in those cases, the baby itself was born with prenatal exposure to the drug.
Indian Health Service is not tracking meth use, making reliable data hard to come by and pushing solutions even further out of reach. After conducting a study of meth use in three Indian communities, the Indian Law and Policy Institute concluded that no systematic examination of the impact of meth on emergency services, social services, law enforcement and schools has taken place on an individual tribal basis, much less on a pan-tribal level.
The Hoopa Tribe is no exception—meth data specific to the Hoopa Valley don’t exist. The scope of the problem can only be pieced together anecdotally, and only understood truly by those who live here. If you ask, they’d tell you that meth use in the valley today is rampant, but it wasn’t always that way.
Hoopa is a 90,000-acre Indian reservation nestled in a majestic forested valley carved over thousands of years by the Trinity River. Although the Hoopa people’s ancestral territory stretched far beyond the present day reservation boundary, the people feel fortunate to have never been removed from their homeland, a phenomenon experienced by most tribes during the 19th and 20th centuries. The town itself is occupied by about 3,000 residents, 95 percent of whom self-identify as American Indian, according to the 2010 census.
The Hoopa Reservation and the Yurok Reservation share a border to the west and the Karuk Tribe’s ancestral territory borders to the east. It’s a triangle of tribes in a geographical region that was difficult for settlers to navigate because of the rugged terrain. The area was colonized much later than most of the U.S., when the gold rush brought wagon trails. The trails since evolved into a highway and dirt roads, making way for the export of timber, which was the economic mainstay of the region for decades.
As the timber industry began to collapse in the 1980s and 1990s, a movement to legalize marijuana for medical use took hold in California. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996 led to the emergence of an already established underground marijuana-based economy in Humboldt County. Fertilizer trucks have taken the place of logging trucks on the highway, the same entry point that is used to traffic a litany of drugs onto the reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that more than 70 percent of meth in the U.S. is imported, primarily from Mexico. Local law enforcement believes the majority of the meth is not produced in Hoopa, but brought there from the nearby city of Eureka and points beyond.
The broken economy in Hoopa and resulting poverty—the annual household income on the reservation hovers around $13,000, and most families receive tribal government assistance—would seem adequate to explain away the high rates of substance abuse. But those in the community with a sense of history say it’s much more complicated.
Melodie George-Moore teaches English and Native American literature at Hoopa High School. She’s also a leader of traditional Hoopa ceremonies. She believes Hoopa’s drug problem has its roots in historical trauma. “We are a conquered people,” George-Moore said. “Unlike any other group in the U.S. we are unique in that respect. That didn’t happen to any other group in this country and it continues to happen to this day.… In order to understand the pressures people are living under, you have to understand how it looks from a Native perspective to be a conquered people in the U.S.”
Multiple generations are grieving the loss of a cherished way of life, a way of life that lasted for thousands of years prior to settlers finding their way to Hoopa. Lessons about events leading to those traumas, said George-Moore, are neither taught in history classes nor spoken about in tribal society at large. “There’s this elephant in the room, and we can’t talk about it. So it just explodes into all these areas of our lives, because you can’t keep all that negativity contained,” she said.
George-Moore believes education can ultimately be a powerful tool for Indian people to recover from generations of abuse and self-medicating. And while there is hope for the future in Hoopa—dozens of high school students from the valley are graduating and on their way to college—the overall snapshot of academic achievement in the community looks grim. Truancy rates in Hoopa schools are above 60 percent, compared to a countywide truancy rate of 18 percent. And, twice as many students need special education services in Hoopa schools versus Humboldt County schools.
Studies suggest that those numbers are directly correlated to the drug problem. The Tribal Law and Policy Institute reported that children with addicted parents are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and absenteeism from school. And in April, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article titled “Formula for Failure,” in which Alameda County Superior Court judge Gloria Rhynes confided that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation monitors third-grade truancy rates to determine how many prison beds it will need in the future. Numerous studies have shown that American Indians are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other ethnic group.
Tribal Policing and Its Challenges
“Meth is screwing a lot of people up,” Hoopa Tribal Police Chief Bob Kane said. “It has destroyed a lot of good families here—a lot of good people, men, women and kids.”
If anyone has seen the impact of methamphetamine on the community up close, it’s Kane. As he patrolled the Hoopa Valley on a recent ride-along, he described a number of drug-related crime scenes that would make most people queasy. On one occasion, said Kane, he walked into a trailer only to find a young woman brutally murdered with a shotgun, an incident that was fueled by drugs. “And there are others that happen out here on the rez,” he said. “You never forget that stuff.”
At least on paper, the Hoopa Valley Tribal Police Department has a full force, with one officer per every 300 residents. Still, local law enforcement struggles to keep
up with the meth game, not to mention other drugs flooding the valley—pot, heroin and prescription pills top the list. Kane said it’s impossible to patrol the entire reservation because of its size and intricate mountain road system. It could be said that Kane’s police force is not only undermanned, but outgunned. Several marijuana fields in the forested areas of Hoopa lands have been linked to organized crime. “They’re targeting our area because we’re remote,” Kane said. “We’ve had, in the past couple of years, large marijuana grows. Last year we had one tied to human trafficking.”
But knowing about a problem and being able to do something about it are two different things in Indian country. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement Services, 90 percent of the tribal police forces they surveyed say they need additional drug-investigation training. And, throughout the U.S. there are approximately 2,555 law-enforcement officers, yet 4,409 officers are needed to provide minimal service levels as compared to similarly situated off-reservation communities.
In Meth in Indian Country: A Call to Action, Cindy Marchand-Cecil pointed to a law passed by Congress in the 1800s that gave the federal government jurisdiction on Indian reservations for major crimes. It didn’t specify drugs. Court cases, including the landmark 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe Supreme Court case, found tribal police had no criminal jurisdiction over non-American Indians, leaving countless jurisdictional questions for tribal law enforcement officials.
The jurisdictional nightmare of tribal, state and federal law is believed to also be a reason organized crime is targeting Indian reservations—one reason why the Hoopa Tribe is currently undergoing a process to resume more criminal jurisdiction over its territory. And they now have legal recourse to do so. From 1953 to 2010, California was required—due to Public Law 280—to assume criminal jurisdiction on all Indian reservations. But in 2010, Congress approved the Tribal Law and Order Act, which opened a window that could allow tribes to request that the U.S. reassume some of that jurisdiction. If successful, the new agreements generated would allow the overlapping of federal, tribal and state jurisdictions. Tribal leaders hope the process will also bring needed funding to their law enforcement program.
The Next Big Thing
One small step at a time, one day at a time, the Hoopa community—tribal government, police, health professionals, residents—is recognizing the urgency to address the meth problem. But in the meantime, law enforcement and health-care officials have reason to believe that other serious drugs may already be overshadowing meth in Hoopa—prescription pills and opiates like heroin.
Dr. Eva Smith moved to Hoopa in 1997 and is the lead physician at the Hoopa Tribe’s medical center. She has also worked with Indian Health Service for 10 years in addiction medicine.
“Obviously there’s a lot of addiction issues here,” she said. “As an addiction medicine provider, it’s sometimes hard for me to say meth is the problem because I honestly don’t think it’s just meth. There’s also an opiate dependence…and overwhelming alcohol issues.”
Yet Smith sees enough of the meth epidemic through her practice to know that it presents a critical challenge to the community, one that doesn’t discriminate by age or gender. She reported multiple cases of treating 50-, 60- and even 70 year-old men and women who were actively using meth. The impact, she said, is not always immediate. Heavy use of meth and other drugs can often lead to health complications later in life, sometimes years after users have cleaned up their act. For example, the high rate of hepatitis C in Hoopa, she said, is directly linked to meth use. “People who were using during a different time of their life—some might even be in leadership roles in the community—that exposure is now manifesting itself as a very serious disease, because of speed use 30 to 40 years earlier,” she said. “There are young people lining up on dialysis, fetal exposure issues, developmental and behavioral issues… There are days when it’s absolutely overwhelming, some of the realities we see here, the physiological and social realities.”
Reality is rough for many. A young mother of four children who continues to struggle with her addiction to meth says the problem isn’t the drug. “The problem is within us,” she said.
She went to treatment last year, but left the program because it “wasn’t for her.” As she pointed to her children waiting in a car she said, “Look at these beautiful kids. It’s sad that isn’t enough [motivation for me to stop using].”
Additional photos by Jacob Simas
This article was originally published jointly by Two Rivers Tribune and New America Media, and is part of a series produced as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Part II will run on our website next week.
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