Lummi Nation Chairman Tony Hillaire gave somber testimony Wednesday in Washington, D.C., about an overwhelming crisis of overdose deaths on his reservation, near Bellingham.
“How many funerals have you been to in the last year? How many have you been to in the last month, in the last week?” Hillaire asked the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
The Lummi Nation, with a population of over 5,000, lost five people in just one week earlier this fall. Four of those were related to drug overdoses and prompted U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to call on committee leaders to hold the hearing on fentanyl’s disproportionate, devastating effects on Indigenous communities.
Hillaire was joined in Washington, D.C., by Lummi youth leaders and community members, to share their story on behalf of Lummi Nation, their ancestors, elders, children, fishermen and fisherwomen. “But most of all, and most importantly, we are here today on behalf of the grieving grandmothers and mothers who are burying their children,” he testified. “Just yesterday, we had a funeral for a 26-year-old Lummi woman who passed away from a drug overdose and leaves behind two children who will grow up now without a mother.”
In the hearing, “Fentanyl in Native Communities: Native Perspectives on Addressing the Growing Crisis,” leaders from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota, and Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, and mental health and wellness professionals from Hawaii, Alaska and California, shared stories of loss and struggles to expand existing programs and prosecute non-Native drug dealers.
They said they know what their communities need to heal: low-barrier, culturally mindful wellness programs; access to traditional healing; medication-assisted treatment programs; sober-living housing; additional law enforcement; and stronger partnerships with local, state and federal agencies to address jurisdictional issues — but they need the funding and policies get there.
This growing fentanyl crisis is rooted in long-standing structural inequities in Native communities, said Brian Schatz, chair of the committee.
Some Indigenous families have faced substance use issues for decades, a consequence of centuries of systemic violence and cultural genocide committed against Indigenous people through federally mandated programs of assimilation, land dispossession and family separation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose rates in both 2020 and 2021.
In Washington state, more than 200 American Indian and Alaska Native people died from synthetic opioid overdoses from 2018 to 2022, according to state Department of Health data. Indigenous people experienced the highest rate of death from synthetic opioid overdoses in the state.
And in King County, Indigenous residents died of synthetic overdoses at more than nine times the rate of white residents in 2022.
Many Pacific Northwest tribal nations have built resilience in integrating cultural resources and traditions with Western medicines to prevent and treat substance use disorders. Studies have found positive effects from culture-based interventions for addiction treatment.
But fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin that is cheap, highly addictive and deadly in very small doses, has strained existing resources.
“What we know is we must increase treatment and recovery capacity,” Sen. Cantwell said. “As one doctor told me, ‘We should have access to recovery be as easy as access to the drug.’ “
In September, Lummi Nation declared a state of emergency in response to the fentanyl crisis. Hillaire asked the committee to do the same at the national level.
“That way we can tear down the barriers, tear down the bureaucracy — everything that’s hindering our ability to take care of our people,” Hillaire said.
Lummi Nation needs funding to help restart preventive programs like the Lummi Youth Academy, which offered culturally appropriate mental health services and education, as well as shelter and food. They’re also $12 million short of building a detox center. So far, pleas to the Indian Health Service haven’t been answered.
Last week, Cantwell announced nearly $6 million for six Washington communities, including Quinault Nation, the Puyallup Tribe and Tulalip Tribes, to support their response to the substance use crisis. That’s in addition to more than $10 million announced over the summer for Yakama Nation, the Seattle Indian Health Board and other Washington communities.
Cantwell helped send FBI officials to Lummi as the crisis peaked this fall, and together, federal and local law enforcement officials were able to get 4,500 pills off the reservation through vehicle checkpoints, Hillaire said.
But, tribal leaders told the committee, there are roads on tribal lands where tribal law enforcement have no jurisdiction. If a non-Native person is arrested on the reservation, some leaders described having to wait and see if there’s room in the county jail, only for the dealers to return to the reservation hours or weeks after their release. Non-Native dealers can and do exploit reservations.
“We see all these billion-dollar packages go into Ukraine and going to Israel. When is Indian country going to matter?” said Bryce Kirk, a councilman for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation. “When are the treaties and trust obligations going to matter?”