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Opinion. On Thursday, President Joe Biden proclaimed August 27 through September 2, 2023 as Overdose Awareness Week. In his proclamation, the president said the overdose epidemic is a national crisis.

“For millions of Americans, it is personal. Too many families have lost their children, siblings, parents, and friends to substance misuse and overdose,” Biden said.

The presidential proclamation is timely because it coincides with International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, which is a global campaign to end overdoses, remember those–without stigma–those who have died from overdoses, and acknowledge the suffering and grief of those who remain behind. 

This year’s theme for International Overdose Day is “Recognizing those people who go unseen.” The theme concentrates on those in communities that are impacted by overdose, but may go unacknowledged. 

Danielle Espinoza, a tribal citizen of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, made sure the tragedy of losing her son to drugs did not not go unacknowledged. She made testimony before the California Assembly’s Fentanyl, Opioid Addiction and Overdose Prevention Committee that conducted a hearing on the Viejas Indian Reservation in Alpine, Calif., 32 miles from downtown San Diego, on August 18, 2023.

In a tearful testimony, Espinoza recounted losing her son, Ruben, during the Covid-19 pandemic to an overdose. He had been out of a drug rehab facility and stayed clean for a short while. But he got with the wrong crowd at the rehab facility and ended up overdosing on heroin, she testified. 

The Viejas tribe has less than 400 members and drugs flow onto the reservation with ease, Espinoza said. Even before Ruben overdosed,  she had gone to the tribal chairman to see what they could do to stop the flow of drugs into their tribal community.

“Out here, all the young kids are overdosing every week,” she testified. “All of my nephews are using. It's not meth. It's fentanyl. It's blues, or whatever. They can get their hands on it. And they can get it very freely out here. I mean, they can have it dropped off outside of their gate or whatever. So it's really a big problem. 

“They're losing their minds out here…They go by themselves and they just get high and they don't care about losing.”

Espinoza was joined on the panel by John Christman, chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, who spoke about the current fentanyl crisis.

“We have had an addiction problem my whole life,” Christman said. “Looking into the eyes of a meth addict versus a fentanyl addict is way different … they are lost.”

Christman testified the problems of drug usage can be attributed to historical trauma experienced for decades by his tribal members. He recounted hearing the stories from his grandparents who attended Indian boarding schools. He spoke about how in 1932, the Viejas tribe was relocated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to an area with inadequate living space. One-fourth of the population died then. He recalled the poverty that his tribal community had to endure. 

“Luckily, we were able to find a way to provide more now (for our people), but still those scars from trauma still exist in our community very much so,” Christmas stated.

Indian Country’s drug problem is not isolated to the Viejas Indian Reservation

"Our people are succumbing to fentanyl overdoses at a rate surpassing any other group in the United States, reflecting a staggering 279% surge between 2016 and 2021,” said Stacey Bohlen, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and CEO of the nonprofit National Indian Health Board.      

In Indian Country, overdoses from fentanyl, opioids, and other deadly drugs such as “tranq” are leading to loss of life as well as a steep decline in the health and well-being of tribal communities. In addition, the epidemic is contributing to the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Throughout Indian Country, families like Danielle Espinoza’s have been met with tragedy and loss. Overdoses have torn tribal communities apart, spurring high unemployment and rising levels of homelessness.  

This past week, 1,000 tribal leaders, frontline health workers, and tribal community members met at the Tulalip Tribes in Marysville, Washington for three days for the inaugural National Tribal Opioid Summit. 

“The solutions for healing lie within our culture and community. The time is ripe for tribal nations to unite and safeguard our people and the generations to come,” Bohlen said in announcing the summit.   

We know the problem of drug overdoses has no borders. Regardless of race, socio-economic strata, religious affiliation, or partisan politics, drug overdoses are a problem of epidemic proportions. 

Even as we acknowledge Overdose Awareness Week, 2023, we know it is a year-round problem that requires all us to work to heal.

Thayék gde nwéndëmen - We are all related.

Editor’s Note: Native News Online has been intensifying its coverage of the drug overdose epidemic in Indian Country. On Thursday, October 19, 2023 at 3 p.m. (EST) and Thursday, October 26, 2023 at 3 p.m. (EST), the Native News Online staff will host a two-part  two-part live stream series calledReducing Drug Overdose Deaths in Indian Country.”

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These stories must be heard.

This May, we are highlighting our coverage of Indian boarding schools and their generational impact on Native families and Native communities. Giving survivors of boarding schools and their descendants the opportunity to share their stories is an important step toward healing — not just because they are speaking, but because they are being heard. Their stories must be heard. Help our efforts to make sure Native stories and Native voices are heard in 2024. Please consider a recurring donation to help fund our ongoing coverage of Indian boarding schools. Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous-centered journalism. Thank you.

About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].