Courtesy Photo
Northeastern State University Professor Amy Proctor (right) works with research assistant Candice McCollum on a report about the impact of methamphetamine on the country’s Native American population.

Gangs, Sex Trafficking and Meth Interconnected in Indian Country

Kristi Eaton

Organized criminal gangs are targeting casinos in tribal jurisdictions to facilitate drug sales and sex trafficking, and drugs are being trafficked by large non-Native organizations with international ties, according to a new study examining methamphetamine use and implications in tribal communities.

Methamphetamine continues to be a substantial problem for tribal communities, though abuse of prescription pills could soon surpass methamphetamine use, according to the study.

The study, which examines the trafficking, distribution and use of methamphetamine and other dangerous drugs in Indian country, involved interviews with law enforcement and social service providers from 10 Native American tribes in the western United States.

Seventy percent of respondents said casinos in tribal jurisdictions are targeting for drug deals and sex trafficking. High rates of larceny, burglary, sexual assault, child and elderly abuse and sex trafficking are also directly associated with the distribution and use of methamphetamine in Indian country, according to the study.

“Meth is unlike any other drug because of the harm it inflicts on people other than the user,” said study head researcher Amy Proctor, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “The level of abuse and neglect associated with meth are staggering and heart-wrenching. Meth use is destroying entire generations of Native Americans.”

The study was part of a larger tribal methamphetamine initiative and funded through the Department of Justice, Community Oriented Policing Services, Proctor said. Though she is not able to say which tribes took part in the research, she said tribes located near known drug corridors were considered for inclusion in the study. Proctor and research assistant Candice McCollum traveled more than 10,000 miles to visit the tribes and research participants.

Proctor said that cartels are also engage in human trafficking and prostitution. They are specifically targeting Native American women, she said.

“They will develop romantic relationships with Native women and oftentimes move into their homes located on reservations and begin to deal drugs to tribal members,” she said. “Geographic location and isolation, poverty and a lack of police resources also make Native communities more vulnerable to exploitation by outside forces.”

McCollum added that the remoteness of many tribal communities seems to play a major factor in why they are targeted.

“The amount of land and people that participants tried to cover was astonishing,” she said.

The study examined the large-scale impact meth had on the communities. In one example, Proctor said, a tribe tested its housing for methamphetamine contamination and found that 30 percent of the units were contaminated and uninhabitable because of the smoke that seeped into the walls, ceilings and carpets. Drug users had also pillaged the units for metal and copper so they could sell pieces to buy drugs, particularly methamphetamine.

“The tribe was losing thousands and thousands of dollars in rent and having to spend thousands more to repair the damaged structures,” Proctor said. “The tribal leaders also reported that they had hundreds of people on the waiting list for housing.”

The study also noted how meth affects violence. Though violent crime in Indian country due to meth is not the norm, according to the study, it was severe when it did occur. In one instance, a 13-year-old girl was raped by her brother and two friends and received a hatchet to the head. She survived but lost motor skills.

“The doctors don’t know if she will recover them with time or not. The offenders were 14 years old,” according to the example in the study.

Still, some communities seem to be making headway with the problems, and they all had several actions in common, Proctor said.

“Substance abuse problems were approached as a community problem rather than problems impacting individuals,” Proctor said. “The departments we interviewed had decent working relationships with each other. They may not always agree on the approach, but laid aside personal feelings in order to better the whole.”

In tribal communities where substance abuse was viewed as less of a problem, a sense of togetherness was evident, she said, as well as a strong sense of leadership, whether it from tribal elders or the transferring of knowledge from one elected official to the next.

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