‘We Hold You Sacred’: Fighting the Opioid Crisis in the Cherokee Nation


From The Guardian: “In 2017, the Cherokee Nation became the first tribe to file a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors for promoting the flow of prescription opioids into its community. The lawsuit, which was settled in 2021 with a $75m payout to the Cherokee Nation, alleged that in just one year, nearly 800kg of opioids – enough for almost 10m pills at oxycodone’s highest strength – were distributed within the reservation.

That suit became the blueprint for the tribal opioid lawsuit that resulted in a $590m settlement in 2022 between the nation’s largest makers and distributors of opioids, including pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, and the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.

Armed with the settlement funds, tribes across Indian country are launching their own treatment programs incorporating their culture and values, a strategy sometimes referred to as ‘Indigenizing’ addiction care and harm reduction.

. . . Evidence for the effect of culture on addiction health in Native communities is not purely anecdotal. A doctoral research project conducted by the University of Arizona in 1992 with the Shuswap First Nation community in Alkali Lake, British Columbia, found that employing substance abuse treatment with cultural practices such as sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, drumming, singing and powwows were instrumental in reducing the tribe’s rate of drug and alcohol abuse by 95% from 1970 to 1985.

. . . Common principles of addiction recovery, [cultural activist Abraham] Bearpaw says, such as mindfulness, gratitude and self-care, have roots in traditional Cherokee ceremonies, but they aren’t often presented that way to Cherokee people in recovery.

‘All of these things are taught in our ceremonial ways,’ Bearpaw said. ‘A lot of people misunderstand what Cherokee culture is about. We might be making a doll or a basket, but we’re really practicing mindfulness if we do these things as they are intended.

‘In our ceremonies, we’re in the woods singing and dancing and praying around a fire. What we are actually doing is letting go of resentment, praying for connection, for gratitude.’

Ashley Lincoln, a Cherokee clinical administrator for the medication-assisted program, said that when introducing cultural components of treatment to patients, staff at the center meet them wherever they are.

‘You have patients who are really connected to their culture and very traditional practices, and then those who are not connected, but they desperately want that,’ Lincoln said. ‘We always talk about when we introduce those cultural aspects – it’s like their spirit remembers it, because they pick it up immediately and they crave it, and it does something for them. It helps them heal.'”

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