The Blackfeet Nation’s Plight Underscores the Fentanyl Crisis on Native American Land


BROWNING, Mont. — Because the pandemic was setting in throughout summer time 2020, Justin Lee Littledog referred to as his mother to inform her he was shifting from Texas again dwelling to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana together with his girlfriend, stepson, and son.

They moved in together with his mother, Marla Ollinger, on a 300-acre ranch on the rolling prairie exterior Browning and had what Ollinger remembers as the very best summer time of her life. “That was the primary time I’ve gotten to fulfill Arlin, my first grandson,” Ollinger mentioned. One other grandson was quickly born, and Littledog discovered upkeep work on the on line casino in Browning to assist his rising household.

However issues started to unravel over the following yr and a half. Buddies and kinfolk noticed Littledog’s 6-year-old stepson strolling round city alone. In the future, Ollinger acquired a name from her youngest son as one in all Littledog’s kids cried within the background. He was briefly unable to wake Littledog’s girlfriend.

Ollinger requested Littledog whether or not he and his girlfriend had been utilizing medication. Littledog denied it. He defined to his mother that folks had been utilizing a drug she had by no means heard about: fentanyl, an artificial opioid that’s as much as 100 instances as potent as morphine. He mentioned he would by no means use one thing so harmful.

Then, in early March, Ollinger woke as much as screams. She left her grandchildren sleeping in her mattress and went into the following room. “My son was laying on the ground,” she mentioned. He wasn’t respiratory.

She adopted the ambulance into Browning, hoping that Littledog had simply forgotten to take his coronary heart treatment and would get better. He was pronounced lifeless shortly after the ambulance arrived on the native hospital.

Littledog was amongst 4 folks to die from fentanyl overdoses on the reservation that week in March, in accordance with Blackfeet well being officers. A further 13 individuals who reside on the reservation survived overdoses, making a startling whole for an Indigenous inhabitants of about 10,000 folks.

Fentanyl has taken root in Montana and in communities throughout the Mountain West throughout the pandemic, after previously being prevalent largely east of the Mississippi River, mentioned Keith Humphreys of the Stanford-Lancet Fee on the North American Opioid Disaster.

Montana legislation enforcement officers have intercepted file numbers of pale-blue tablets made to appear like prescription opioids similar to OxyContin. Within the first three months of 2022, the Montana Freeway Patrol seized over 12,000 fentanyl tablets, more than three times the quantity from all of 2021.

Nationwide, at least 103,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021, a forty five% improve from 2019, in accordance with information from the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention. About 7 of every 10 of these deaths had been from artificial opioids, primarily fentanyl.

Overdose deaths are disproportionately affecting Native Individuals. The overdose loss of life charge amongst Indigenous folks was the very best of all racial teams within the first yr of the pandemic and was about 30% increased than the speed amongst white folks, according to a study co-authored by UCLA graduate scholar and researcher Joe Friedman.

In Montana, the opioid overdose loss of life charge for Indigenous folks was twice that of white folks from 2019 to 2021, in accordance with the state Division of Public Well being and Human Companies.

The explanation, partially, is that Native Individuals have comparatively much less entry to well being care assets, Friedman mentioned. “With the drug provide changing into so harmful and so poisonous, it requires assets and data and expertise and funds to remain protected,” he mentioned. “It requires entry to hurt discount. It requires entry to well being care, entry to drugs.”

The Indian Well being Service, which is answerable for offering well being care to many Indigenous folks, has been chronically underfunded. In keeping with a 2018 report from the U.S. Fee on Civil Rights, IHS per affected person expenditures are considerably lower than these of different federal well being packages.

“I believe what we’re seeing now’s deep-seated disparities and social determinants of well being are form of bearing out,” Friedman mentioned, referring to the disproportionate overdose deaths amongst Native Individuals.

Blackfeet Tribal Enterprise Council member Stacey Keller mentioned she has skilled the shortage of assets firsthand whereas making an attempt to get a member of the family into remedy. She mentioned simply discovering a facility for detoxing was troublesome, not to mention discovering one for remedy.

“Our remedy facility right here, they’re not outfitted to cope with opioid dependancy, in order that they’re often referred out,” she mentioned. “A few of the struggles we’ve seen all through the state and even the western a part of the US is numerous the remedy facilities are at capability.”

The native remedy heart doesn’t have the medical experience to oversee somebody going by means of opioid withdrawal. Solely two detox beds can be found on the native IHS hospital, Keller mentioned, and are sometimes occupied by different sufferers. The well being care system on the reservation additionally doesn’t provide medication-assisted remedy. The closest areas to get buprenorphine or methadone — medication used to deal with opioid addictions — are 30 to 100 miles away. That may be a burden to sufferers who are required by federal rules to indicate up every day on the permitted dispensaries to obtain methadone or should make weekly treks for buprenorphine.

Keller mentioned tribal leaders have requested help from IHS to construct out remedy and different substance use assets locally, with no outcomes.

The IHS’ Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program guide, JB Kinlacheeny, mentioned the company has largely shifted to appropriating funds on to tribes to run their very own packages.

The Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, a consortium of Montana and Wyoming tribes, is working with the Montana Healthcare Basis on a feasibility research for a remedy heart operated by tribes to construct capability particularly for tribal members. Tribes throughout each states, together with the Blackfeet, have handed resolutions supporting the trouble.

Blackfeet political leaders declared a state of emergency in March after the fentanyl overdoses. A short while later, a number of the tribal council chairman’s kids had been arrested on suspicion of promoting fentanyl out of his dwelling. The council removed Chairman Timothy Davis from his place as tribal chief in early April.

The tribe has created a activity pressure to establish each the short- and long-term wants to answer the opioid disaster. Blackfeet tribal police investigator Misty LaPlant helps lead that effort.

Driving round Browning, LaPlant mentioned she plans to coach extra folks on the reservation to manage naloxone, a drugs that reverses opioid overdoses. She additionally needs the tribe to host needle exchanges to cut back infections and the unfold of ailments like HIV. There’s additionally hope, she mentioned, {that a} reorganization of the tribal well being division will lead to a one-stop store for Blackfeet Nation residents to seek out drug dependancy assets on and off the reservation.

Nonetheless, she mentioned resolving a number of the underlying points — similar to poverty, housing, and meals insecurity — that make communities just like the Blackfeet Nation susceptible to the continuing fentanyl disaster is a large enterprise that gained’t be accomplished anytime quickly.

“You may join historic trauma, unresolved traumas basically, and grief into what makes our group susceptible,” she mentioned. “For those who have a look at the affect of colonialism and Indigenous communities and other people, there’s a correlation there.”

Marla Ollinger is comfortable to see momentum constructing to struggle opioid and fentanyl dependancy within the wake of her son’s loss of life and different folks’s. As a mom who struggled to seek out the assets to avoid wasting her son, she hopes nobody else has to reside by means of that have.

“It’s heartbreaking to look at your kids die unnecessarily,” she mentioned.

This story is a part of a partnership that features Montana Public RadioNPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Well being Information) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points. Along with Coverage Evaluation and Polling, KHN is among the three main working packages at KFF (Kaiser Household Basis). KFF is an endowed nonprofit group offering info on well being points to the nation.

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