Heroin Deaths Bring Community Together
Monday, June 08 2015
Written by Alfred Walking Bull,
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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 users.”

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 it.”

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, MN).

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 addiction.

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)

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