Indigenous Tribes Label Opioid Overdose Deaths a National Emergency

Native Americans, Oklahoma
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In late March of 2022, Blackfeet tribal leaders of northwestern Montana came forward and issued a proclamation that opioid overdoses had reached the level of a National Public Health Emergency on Blackfeet tribal lands. The declared state of emergency came on the heels of several back-to-back opioid overdoses on the Blackfeet Reservation, the most significant spike in overdoses this tribe had seen yet.

Just a few states away, similar developments occurred not long ago within the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Cherokee tribal leaders also described their plight as a critical national emergency.

These developments paint a grim picture of the future. The opioid epidemic has officially reached all corners of the nation, including persons of all racial demographics, ethnic groups, ages, sexes, and income classes. Now more than ever, the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis that affects all Americans, which should inspire a national movement to overcome the epidemic.

Breaking News from the Blackfeet Tribe of Northwestern Montana

Following a string of fentanyl-related overdoses, Blackfeet tribal leaders declared a state of emergency on their northwestern Montana reservation. Within one week in March 2022, 17 people overdosed on fentanyl on the Blackfeet Reservation, leading to four deaths. Tribal leaders announced they would implement a drug prevention task force to combat the problem, beginning with investigating how drugs are getting onto the reservation.

Concerning Developments in Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation

Native American Kid
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A few states away, Oklahoma’s Cherokee nation has reported similar developments, with shocking increases in drug overdoses that rival the nation’s hardest-hit counties. Further, the crisis of opioid overdoses comes with significant pain, the loss of Cherokee children from tribal lands.

According to Pew Research, at least 1,700 Cherokee children were put into state foster programs due to parents who were addicted to opioids or as a result of parents who had died from opioid overdoses. Those children are now growing up in non-Cherokee households, raising concern among tribal leaders as to whether or not those children will be taught Cherokee traditions and customs. The article from Pew Research states that “National statistics show that half of all children of all ethnic groups who are taken away from their parents never return home. So, with more than 70% of Native children going to non-Native families, the tribe may be losing them for good.”

“When you’re talking about a tribe where the entire population is 800 people, the overdose deaths of 20 people in one year is not just a public health crisis, it has ramifications for their very existence.”

Further, the tight-knit nature of Indigenous Cherokee tribes in Oklahoma means that fatal drug overdoses deal a particularly harsh blow to the community. Quoting Stacy Leeds, a former justice for the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law, “When you’re talking about a tribe where the entire population is 800 people, the overdose deaths of 20 people in one year is not just a public health crisis, it has ramifications for their very existence.”

According to the Cherokee Nation’s record-keeping, the combined tribes across Oklahoma have lost at least 350 citizens between 2003 and 2014, in a population of roughly 375,000. That means Oklahoma’s Cherokee tribes are losing citizens to opioid overdoses at a rate higher than the state average.

Oklahoma has over 38 independent Native American tribes, several of them Cherokee. And while these tribes have been diligently pursuing the pharmaceutical manufacturers who created the drugs that Indigenous peoples die from, little has been done to ensure all Cherokee citizens who need addiction help get it.

Addiction Crisis Statistics

According to research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in Pew Research, Indigenous Americans comprise only 2% of the U.S. population, yet this group had higher rates of overdose deaths than any other racial or ethnic group from 2003 through 2013. Overdoses among this group increased more than sixfold during that period, a faster rate of increase than among any other racial group.

Native Americans as a national demographic suffered 2.2 deaths per 100,000 in the population from opioid overdoses in the year 2000. But that rate has been steadily rising. By 2008, 8.8 Indigenous Americans were dying from opioid overdoses for every 100,000 people. By 2016, the rate had soared to 13.7 deaths for every 100,000.

A Minnesota-based tribal nation took the research further, examining the surge in Native American opioid overdoses from 2015 onwards. Quoting the research, “The overall drug overdose death rate for American Indians in Minnesota rose from 2015 to 2017 while staying constant for other groups. It increased from 47.3 per 100,000 in 2015 to 76.2 per 100,000 in 2017.” According to that report, Indigenous Americans suffer a higher death rate from drug overdoses than other racial groups in several states.

The Need for Treatment

Multiple reports show the diligence with which Oklahoma Cherokee, Oklahoma Choctaw, and Montana Blackfeet Native Americans have pursued litigation against pharmaceutical companies that make opioid drugs. The goal is to use the legal system to make pharma companies pay for addiction treatment services for Indigenous Americans addicted to opioids. However, the legal process is lengthy, and Indigenous Americans hooked on drugs must not wait another minute to seek treatment.

Residential drug rehab programs offer a way out of an addiction nightmare. Drug rehabs are the key for tribal nations to end the epidemic of addiction upon their lands. The sooner those addicted can seek qualified drug treatment, the sooner their tribes can begin recovering from what may be the worst public health emergency of the 21st century.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.