Red Lake, Minn. – The morning sun was high overhead as Tom Barrett Sr. stood alongside a two-lane highway and watched three young men run by in the 200-mile Anishinaabe Spirit relay to celebrate sobriety.
Over the decades, the battle against addiction has been a constant on the Red Lake, Leech Lake, White Earth and Fond du Lac reservations in northern Minnesota. But recently, the demons afflicting many who call those communities home have escalated from alcohol to cocaine to deadly mixes of heroin.
“Opiates have been around forever,” said Barrett, a former executive director of chemical health at Red Lake. But now, heroin is often being mixed with other toxic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, “and it’s killing people across the country.”
Last week, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, saying the crisis exceeded anything he has seen with other drugs. A startling surge in heroin overdoses this summer on the Red Lake Reservation 270 miles northwest of the Twin Cities prompted tribal leaders to declare their own public health emergency and take steps to counter a phenomenon that threatens to ravage the community.
In early July, 10 people overdosed in just a week, tribal officials said. Nobody died, but the message was clear.
“Any time you have something coming into your community and claiming lives, you have to take drastic steps,” Barrett said.
Tribal leaders immediately spelled out a plan to enlist help from federal, state and county officials, establish more treatment programs and take the extraordinary step of possibly banishing tribal members from the Red Lake Nation — a last resort for fighting the drug problem.
“We’re being attacked by these drugs — heroin, opiates and meth,” said tribal chairman Darrell Seki Sr. Addiction here is widespread, he added, causing people to lose jobs, homes and children.
“It’s devastating to our people who are using. We need to do something, and hopefully this is the starting point.”
A bid ‘to cure our people’
Opioid-related deaths have more than doubled in Minnesota from 193 in 2007 to 402 last year, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state death certificate data. Thirty-three American Indians in the state died last year from exposure to prescription opioids such as hydrocodone or versions of heroin. That translates to 8 percent of the total opioid-related deaths in Minnesota, despite making up 1 percent of the population.
Death certificate data suggest that the opioid epidemic among American Indians mirrors the national picture, starting with abuse or overuse of prescription drugs and moving to heroin. In 2007, none of the death certificates involving American Indians specifically listed heroin as a cause. By 2016, half listed heroin as a primary or secondary cause.
On the Red Lake Reservation, home to about 6,500 people, the majority of recent overdoses could have been fatal had emergency workers, conservation officers and other community members not carried naloxone, which can revive victims, said Cynthia Gunderson, chief pharmacist at the Red Lake Pharmacy. With more potent heroin on the street, some of it laced with other deadly drugs, emergency workers have had to deliver multiple doses of naloxone to revive some victims.
In 2016 alone, first responders administered 133 doses of the drug compared to just seven doses two years earlier.
Naloxone “has saved a lot of people … but we don’t want everyone thinking they can get high and we’ll save their lives,” Seki said. “That’s not the answer. The answer is to cure our people.”
The soft-spoken Seki is painfully aware of the ravages of addiction. His mother died of alcoholism. His granddaughter, traumatized by a 2005 school shooting here that claimed seven lives, is addicted to heroin and cocaine.
“It trickles down through the generations,” Seki said. “I’m trying to make it better for the next generation.”
Even before the public health emergency was declared, plans were underway to build a 16-bed residential treatment center on the reservation that could eventually be increased to 32 beds. It will replace a 10-bed treatment center in nearby Redby, where there’s often a backlog, said Salena Beasley, who oversees the reservation’s chemical health program.
Last week, tribal leaders voted to develop a medically assisted treatment program on the reservation to make it easier for people who now travel long distances to Bemidji, Cass Lake and Thief River Falls to get their daily dose of suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid dependence, Beasley said.
Tribal leaders also made the difficult decision to go so far as to consider banishing members who manufacture, buy or sell drugs.
“Banishment is hard for me,” Seki said. “I don’t want to hurt our people. … But we had one drug dealer busted eight times. Maybe people will wake up.”
Culture as healer
Red Lake isn’t alone in its fight.
White Earth tribal chairman Terrence Tibbetts said last week that hundreds of tribal members there have suffered overdoses this year, sparking leaders to double down on their own fight against drugs.
Several years ago, tribal leaders declared a public health emergency as opiate pill addictions spiked and morphed into heroin and meth addictions. Since then, the community has established programs to help with recovery, keep families together and prevent others from falling into addiction. Creating programs that emphasize the tribe’s rich cultural roots and history also have helped, said tribal member Mary Gagnon.
“We are Anishinaabe,” Gagnon said. “We have a beautiful, strong culture. This is who we are.”
At Red Lake, Austin Head, 33, said reconnecting to his heritage has helped him stay sober for 12 years.
“I was sitting in the Red Lake jail and a pipe carrier did a pipe ceremony,” Head said. “He told us that there were only three things that could happen if we kept going down that road: prison, treatment or death.”
That led Head to think about how his addiction had hurt his mother, a kind and giving woman who raised four children.
“I’ve never seen a drug as evil as heroin,” he said. “It’s coldly destructive. … Addicts turn on their own mothers and grandmothers.”
Weary of using and dealing drugs, and wanting to be a better father to his son, Head sought guidance from elders, who helped him find sobriety in a sweat lodge. Now he’s helping others heal through weekly sweats. What began with a few people 2½ years ago has grown into a group with as many as 30 people every Wednesday.
“They have somewhere to go where there are people like them and where there are elders most of the time,” Head said. “They can talk without being judged and have a place where there is love.”
Head’s brother, Robert “George” Head, 61, also wants to make a difference. After leaving the Red Lake Reservation at 21, George returned last year and started taking kids fishing.
“They’re just regular kids, but they know everything, and sad to say, they’ve seen everything,” he said.
George especially wants to help kids and their families connect with their culture through fishing, camping and traditional ceremonies. He also hopes to lend support to those coming out of treatment.
“There’s hope,” said Barrett, watching as the Anishinaabe Spirit runners proudly carried two eagle staffs down the rural highway. “Nobody is giving up on anybody.”
Staff writer Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.