Heroin Deaths Bring Community Together


heroin deaths bring community together.jpgOn May 29, over 100 members of the

Minneapolis American Indian community filled the hall of the Church

of Gichitwaa Kateri to hear from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office

about an alarming rise in heroin and opioid-related deaths.

According to the Sheriff’s Office,

deaths have been on a rise throughout the county. Beginning in 2008,

there were only six deaths related to heroin and opioid overdose;

that figure climbed steadily to 56 in 2013; so far this year, there

have been 12, half of which, occurred in Little Earth of United

Tribes, the Native American housing complex in South Minneapolis. In

a prepared letter, read for the event, Little Earth president and CEO

Robert Lilligren (White Earth Ojibwe) stated, “It’s a grim way for

me to mark my time here.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Richard Stanek

moderated the Heroin Town Hall Forum and praised the work being down

between his office and Little Earth. However, he admitted that

addressing the issue didn’t rest in jail time. “Prevention and

treatment are essential. We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Commander Bruce Folkens, Minneapolis

Police Department, detailed all prongs of attack from the law

enforcement side. “It’s a multi-faceted approach. We’ve got

undercover cops, precinct cops and uniformed officers.” Officers

from the city are also assigned to the Drug Enforcement Agency and

the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “We try to hit it at

all levels, two officers follow up with every arrest. But we need

folks, such as yourselves to be our eyes and ears.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman

echoed those sentiments, “Have the courage to come forward and

help. Call the police.” He sought to allay fears from community

members that his office may not differentiate between prosecuting

addicts and dealers. “We prosecute all adult cases, but there’s a

difference between a use who suffers from addiction and the dealer

who suffers from greed. Drug court works with small time dealers and


Gerald Cross, a community member in

recovery, gave his personal story on what led to his addictions to

heroin and crack. “What got me going is that I didn’t have no love,

my parents’ addiction to alcohol and we were in foster homes. We had

decent [foster] parents who were white but we knew we were different

and they made us feel different. So we ran away and stayed with

people who accepted us.”

Cross and his twin brother James then

set out on a path fraught with the struggle of fitting in and tangles

with the law. “I was jailed at age 11, that was my first

incarceration. I got into gang life, it was something to belong to.

Then I did nine-and-a-half years for a drive-by shooting.”

Through his incarcerations, Cross had

time to reflect on the causes of his addictions. “We didn’t have

any spirituality, we were empty inside. The drugs made us feel

better. I didn’t care about nothing. First, it was fun, then I needed


Eventually, Cross’s parole officer

recommended treatment, which led to his recovery and working with his

brother to help other addicts in the community. “We all got clean

and we got the family we all needed and wanted … we got love …

things are coming to us.”

As part of his recovery, Cross helps

facilitate a talking circle at Little Earth called Natives Against

Heroin that meets on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. In the Neighborhood

Early Learning Center (2438 18th Ave. S., Minneapolis,


Heroin’s Youngest Victims

While the public safety aspect of drug

trafficking is well-documented in statistics, what is rarely

discussed is the effects of addiction, particularly on newborn Native

children. Aida Strom (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate) is the American Indian

Patient Advocate at Hennepin County Medical Center and described the

impact of addiction on her youngest patients. “If you listen to the

people, they’ll tell you what’s wrong. There’s been a marked increase

in babies born at HCMC with addiction. Babies have the same

withdrawal effects, they can’t stop crying, they have tremors, tense

arms and legs, they experience vomiting and diarrhea.”

Lisa Skefjte (Red Lake Ojibwe),

Childrens Hospital American Indian Community Liaison, grew up in

Little Earth and for her, a solution lies in reclaiming cultural

practices. “Our community went up, pounded on the doors and said

‘you need to have this.’”

“The second day I was there, a

social worker contacted me and asked how to best serve Native mothers

with babies with NAS. I told them we need to get community into the

hospital, some moms might be left alone, and sometimes, mom is

struggling,” she said. “We have a family and volunteer cohort

coming in and comforting our babies. Traditionally, our aunties,

grandmas and moms used to comfort and swaddle our babies.”

The collective effort to engage

community and culture in recovering children addicted to heroin is

The First Gift. It’s a project through the the community, Native

American Community Development Institute and All My Relations Gallery

to make and bead baby moccasins for newborn infants affected by NAS.

Community Finding Solutions

Part of the forum’s community

inclusion was taking questions from community members that were

pre-written and answered by the panel. One question asked why

children born with NAS were returned to mothers suffering from


Laura LaPlante, a licensed ICWA foster

mother for 20 years, answered the question from the crowd, defending

it as an act of putting cultural values and sovereignty above other

consideration. “We’ve taken all the NAS babies, the reason why they

go back is because the mother gave birth to the child. Do not pass

judgment on the mother. Judgment is reserved for the creator.” She

continued, “Under ICWA, mothers are entitled to that reunion, or we

will lose our children.”

Social Worker Matt Thornhill (Red Lake

Ojibwe), offered his perspective and said the best way of keeping

children safe was to engage in a tough-love approach. “I’ve been a

social worker for 20 years, I’ve seen this wave of opiates coming in

hard. This recent wave of heroin use is 10 times worse than meth use.

As a member of a the community, we have terrible stories of finding

people addicted, people who are leaving their kids with family

members – that’s neglect.”

He’s mindful of the realities of

addiction. “I work with adults who – I think in the back of my

mind – ‘who’s going to be with you when you overdose?’ The message

I want to bring is we can get victimized by our family members who

act like you’re victimizing them. Once you use opiates, you stop

being a rational, functioning adult.”

Stanek and others expounded on the

virtue of drug prevention programs in the community, which drew

comment from Nick Howard, a 16 year-old resident of Little Earth.

“I’ve never seen ads for drug prevention, where are they?”

Strom addressed the question, “This

[forum] is a programming. How many youth are in here? We used to

bring our kids to stuff. Let’s start doing that again. Grown up

meetings aren’t just for grown ups.”

Tammey Skinaway, another Little Earth

resident also pointed out a lack of diversion for children. “Kids

have nothing to do. We need dedicated money, dedicated people is what

we need. We’re trying to bridge with police so kids see police as

something strive to be, not something to run away from.”

PHOTO: Gerald Cross gives his personal

story of addiction to heroin and crack in front of a room filled with

Minneapolis American Indian Community members at the Church of

Gichitwaa Kateri on May 28. (Photo by Alfred Walking Bull)