Battling addiction in the Cherokee Nation

Battling addiction in the Cherokee Nation
© Photodisc/Thinkstock

I see the impact of the opioid epidemic on the Cherokee Nation through a heartbreaking lens — the eyes of our Cherokee children born addicted. Every month, I see numerous babies fighting for their life as they begin the torturous process of opioid withdrawal — bodies shaking, hearts racing, crying inconsolably, and left with permanent developmental delays.

Words cannot begin to describe their ordeal.

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So far this year, we’ve placed as many children into foster homes as we did during all of last year. Sadly, once the grip of addiction takes hold, too many parents are never able to be reunited with their children.

It breaks my heart, and it is unraveling the fabric of Cherokee society.

With foster homes in high demand, we do not have enough Cherokee foster and adoptive homes to place all the children with Cherokee families. Although we actively seek Cherokee families daily, almost 70 percent of Cherokee children in our state must be placed with non-Cherokee families. These children are raised without learning to speak the Cherokee language, and without learning the traditions, history and customs of the Cherokee people.  Once lost, these key aspects of their precious Cherokee identity are hard to regain, and even harder to pass down to their own children. Not only is every citizen individually at risk because of the opioid epidemic, but our Cherokee culture and community are threatened as well.

In 2015 and 2016, 184 million opioid pain pills were shipped by pharmaceutical distributors and dispensed by retail pharmacies in the 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation. That comes to 153 doses for every man, woman and child in the area. And data indicates these levels of distributed and dispensed opioids have continued unabated for the first quarter of 2017. The quantity of drugs funneled into our community is far beyond any legitimate medical need. To stop this tragic cycle, the Cherokee Nation is pursuing legal claims against the companies who have flooded Eastern Oklahoma with these drugs.

In April, the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit against six opioid distributors and pharmaceutical companies for their role in fueling the opioid crisis. These companies failed to meet their legal and ethical obligations to stem the flow of enormous quantities of illegally diverted opioids into our community.  Since we filed the lawsuit, there has been an increased awareness of the Cherokee Nation’s struggle with the opioid epidemic. But for me, the news was not new or shocking. In fact, as many as 40 percent of my cases with deprived children have involved opioid abuse. You would be hard-pressed to find a Cherokee family or individual who has not been personally affected by the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Throughout our history, the Cherokee Nation has fought back against injustice and wrongdoing that have threatened our people and our Nation. Through this lawsuit, we will do the same to stop the opioid epidemic in our community.

We will protect our children, and all our citizens, from the callous actions of companies that want to saturate our jurisdiction with dangerous, addictive pills. Our children are our future and without them, we will cease to exist. We must protect the most vulnerable of our citizens from being born addicted to opioids. If availability is limited, use will be minimized, and when use is minimized, addiction will be curbed. That means fewer Cherokee babies will be born addicted, and our families will flourish once again. That is our goal, and it is a fight worth pursuing for the future of the Cherokee Nation. 

Baker-Limore is executive director of Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare and a Cherokee citizen.