Leaders address addiction in tribal communities
Chairwoman says problem has reached ‘epidemic levels’
MAHNOMEN, Minn. – White Earth tribal leaders say they won’t wait any longer to devise solutions for the devastating addictions that plague their communities.
“We have buried too many young people; have seen too many lives destroyed; too many homes, too many communities damaged,” tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said Monday before a crowd of about 300 people gathered in Mahnomen for a substance abuse summit aimed at Native American communities.
The summit continues today and is intended to be an annual event.
Historically, Indian reservations and tribal communities have struggled more disproportionately with addictions to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
Vizenor said the problem has reached “epidemic levels” at the White Earth reservation and similar tribal nations elsewhere across the country.
“It is time for us to deal with it,” she said. “It’s not a problem of good and bad; it’s a problem of health.”
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken and other state and federal leaders at the summit agreed drug and alcohol addictions have become a “public health problem” for the state’s tribal population.
For Franken in particular, the topic of substance abuse is all too personal. His wife, Franni, is a recovering alcoholic.
In opening the summit Monday, Franken spoke candidly about his wife’s revelation of her addiction during his 2008 campaign for Senate and the effects such an addiction can have.
“Drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t just affect the addict, but of course, the entire family,” he said. “The sense of hopelessness from living in a home where there is substance abuse can become debilitating.”
But, Franken added: “If it’s any solace at all, people of all walks of life – all economic and demographic groups – experience this, too, and feel just as hopeless.”
State health leaders pledged to work more closely with tribal communities to devise successful, yet “culturally appropriate” solutions.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the Department of Health’s tribal liaison would be moved directly into his office to better address substance abuse and other health issues affecting Indian country.
Franken, who serves on the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, also vowed to help through work at the federal level.
“Indian country has so many challenges. The prevalence of substance abuse in itself is one of those challenges – but it’s one of those that makes all the other challenges so much harder, so much more difficult,” Franken said. “All of us have a responsibility to come to grips with this … and there is an urgency to it.”
Earlier this year, White Earth tribal leaders issued a proclamation declaring a health emergency because of substance abuse issues on the reservation.
Vizenor said she hopes summits, such as the one this week, will lead to solutions that other tribal communities can benefit from.
“We are going to get on the road to health, and we are going to share our message with whoever needs it,” she said.