The opioid crisis plaguing the nation is having a dramatic impact on tribal communities across Minnesota, and Mille Lacs is no exception.
In 2014, the Band became aware of a dramatic increase in babies born addicted to opioids, and steps were taken to ad- dress the problem. Narcan has been made available to clinics and police, a Prescription Monitoring Program and a needle exchange program have been implemented, Tribal Police have installed a prescription drug disposal site, and the Band made an agreement with the State of Minnesota to take over operation of Four Winds treatment facility in Brainerd.
In late August, the opioid epidemic once again took center stage after a surge in overdoses in the District I community. According to Interim Tribal Police Chief Sara Rice, there were 14 overdoses between August 18 and September 1. Over the last year, the department responded to 44 overdoses.
According to the Midwest Medical Examiner’s office, which contracts for service with Mille Lacs and 20 other counties, there have been seven overdose deaths in the county so far this year, compared to a total of four in 2016 and four in 2015.
Band member Kevin Stobb appeared before Band Assembly on Aug. 31 to share his concerns and plead for action from the tribal government.
Band Assembly responded by dedicating a meeting to the issue and inviting Health and Human Services Commissioner Rebecca St. Germaine, Executive Director Noya Woodrich and Tribal Police Chief Sara Rice to speak.
“The Mille Lacs Band is actively working with national Federal and State officials to initiate and continue with a working partnership in how we address the health care of our shared communities,” said Rebecca.
The Health and Human Services Department has re-opened Four Winds, and more beds will become available with a new culturally-specific program put in place dubbed “Noojimowigamig — The Healing Center.”
“Noojimowigamig, the Healing Center, utilizes the Anishinaabe cultural approach, Bimaadiziwin, to clarify our beliefs in healing the whole person,” Rebecca said. “It lays the foundation for rewriting best practices in therapeutic treatments within health policy and standard of care for our Native clients. It is abundantly clear we must make a stand as tribal members, band families and health practitioners that our community must spread the knowledge that we can demand change in defeating further addictions and overdose. Changing our behaviors and making good choices to say ‘no to drugs’ is a key position to being healthy. It is true Narcan may give a one-time break for the overdose condition, but a better choice is to seek treatment at the Noojimowigamig, Healing Center, if a person is battling addiction. Make that call to us. Miigwech.”
A proposal is also being developed for a “Hope, Health and Healing Campaign” to promote a public health approach to the tragic events that have affected the community.
Tribal police encourage vigilance, cooperation
Interim Police Chief Sara Rice encourages anyone who witnesses an overdose to call 911 immediately. She also asks for help in fighting opioids and other drugs.
Sara reminds community members that they cannot be prosecuted if they report an overdose. “Steve’s Law” provides immunity to those who call 911 in good faith to save a life.
The Mille Lacs Band Tribal Police Department also operates an anonymous drug tip line. The number you can call is 320- 630-2458. This number is not monitored 24/7, so feel free to leave voicemails and/or text messages. If you would like a call back, be sure to leave your name and number. This line is not an emergency number. In case of emergency, dial 911.
Things to watch for, Sara said, are needles, snort tubes, and “bindles,” small folded pieces of paper used to distribute heroin and other drugs. Tribal Police have found evidence that naloxone (brand name Narcan), which counteracts the effects of an overdose, has been used by private parties in response to overdoses, but this is far from foolproof.
For one thing, Sara said, the naloxone may wear off before the overdose symptoms are gone. In other words, someone treated with naloxone may still die of an overdose.
Second, a person treated with naloxone may respond aggressively, potentially harming others on the scene.
Sara is also concerned about myths circulating among heroin users, like the belief that an ice bath can counteract an overdose.
The opioid fentanyl has become more of a problem than heroin in many parts of the country, Sara said. Fentanyl can be hundreds of times stronger than heroin and can be absorbed through the skin. Inhalation of a few grains can result in death.
Anyone who finds a suspected bindle should not handle it, but should call 911.
Fentanyl is also being mixed with other drugs, including marijuana.
Addicts will do anything to avoid withdrawal, like telling friends and family not to call 911 in the event of an overdose, but continuing to use is far more dangerous than quitting. The best thing you can do for an addict is to get them help from medical professionals who can manage their withdrawal.
Tribal Police have a difficult job, Sara said, and she encourages Band members to see the police as allies. “We have compassion for people who are addicted,” she said. “It’s a tough thing to watch and deal with. With these overdoses — these are things we take home with us. We have children, we have families, we have struggles in our own lives. We’re all human beings. None of us are perfect, but it’s a tough job.”