Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA Sen. Cantwell wants Congress to act on fentanyl crisis in NW tribes

Rebecca Crocker, Executive Director at Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, center, speaks at the Treatment, Recovery & Prevention breakout session at the Washington State Tribal Opioid/Fentanyl Summit at the Silver Reef Casino and Conference Center on Monday, May 22, 2023. (Daniel Kim/The Seattle Times/TNS)  (Daniel Kim/Seattle Times)
By Isabella Breda Seattle Times

On the heels of a string of overdose deaths in Lummi Nation, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is calling for a congressional hearing to examine how the fentanyl crisis has disproportionately affected Native communities.

“We’ve had way too many funerals in this building,” Tony Hatch, a Tulalip artist and historian, said at a boarding school remembrance event Friday at Tulalip, Washington. “I was in Lummi yesterday … We couldn’t believe all the fresh mounds of dirt.”

Cantwell cited five deaths from fentanyl overdoses in one week recently at Lummi in a letter to U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz and Vice Chair Lisa Murkowski.

“Sadly the Lummi Nation is not alone,” Cantwell wrote.

Washington state has seen the biggest increase in overdose deaths in the nation – more than 21% reported between February 2022 and February 2023. And Native communities across the country continue to experience disproportionate increases in overdose deaths despite efforts to prevent and treat drug addiction and overdoses in their communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose rates in both 2020 and 2021.

“You really have to look at it historically,” former Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire said in a phone call Tuesday. “There was a truly an act of genocide over generations, whether that be boarding school, stealing the land, taking away the resources that we lived off of.”

“It lives on,” Hillaire continued. “The hierarchical system that we have in place was not built for us.”

In May, Lummi held a statewide fentanyl summit, bringing together tribal nations and state officials to share stories and seek solutions to the crisis.

Tribes across the state have built wraparound wellness programs – medication-assisted treatment programs, counseling, cultural programming, transitional living – for their members and, often, the greater community.

But fentanyl has strained their providers and treatment options and, in some cases, led to long waitlists for services.

“We have been in existence since ‘88 … we’ve seen the historical and intergenerational trauma,” said Rebecca Crocker, executive director of the Healing Lodge of Seven Nations, in Spokane Valley. “And now on top of that, we’re dealing with fentanyl.”

The Tulalip Tribes have 5,200 members. Since 2017, the tribe has documented 41 overdoses, 25 of those from fentanyl, Tulalip Chairwoman Teri Gobin said at the May summit.

“It seems like almost once a month, sometimes twice a week we are going to funerals. It’s exhausting,” Gobin said. “And it’s getting a lot of young people. I just recently had a great-niece, 17 years old, pass away from fentanyl.”

“It’s becoming the norm,” she continued, “and it shouldn’t be that way.”

Cantwell held a series of fentanyl crisis roundtable discussions around the state and attended the National Tribal Opioid Summit in Tulalip this summer. In August, Cantwell secured about $10.5 million in funding for Washington communities and tribes, including Yakama Nation and the Seattle Indian Health Board, to address the fentanyl crisis.