As a child welfare specialist for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma more than a decade ago, Juli Skinner saw firsthand the impact of the opioid crisis on Cherokee families.
Parents who began using the powerful painkillers after a surgery or injury became hooked and were losing custody of their children, babies were being born addicted and young people who ended up in foster care were aging out of the system and becoming addicted themselves, resulting in a generational impact.
"We didn’t know what hit us. We were just floundering," recalled Skinner, now the director of behavioral health for the Cherokee Nation, which is headquartered in Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma.
Now, the nation's largest Native American tribe, with more than 440,000 enrolled citizens, plans to use a portion of its $98 million in opioid settlement funds to construct a 50-bed, 17,000-square-foot treatment facility in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where the tribe is headquartered. The facility, which tribal officials announced on Monday, will be completely operated by the tribe and provide no-cost treatment for Cherokee Nation citizens struggling with substance abuse.
The $18 million treatment center is part of $73 million the tribe plans to spend building facilities across its reservation to address behavioral health needs, including drug treatment and prevention. Another $5 million will go into a tribal endowment to help pay for Cherokees to go to college and grad school to become therapists and medical professionals needed to staff the facilities.
"These will truly be drug treatment centers developed by Cherokees, for Cherokees," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin. "It's not a federal government-imposed facility.
"The symbolism is also important, which is we are paying for this over the next five years and making the opioid industry pay for everything. There's a real sense of justice just making that statement."
Native American tribes across the country settled with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the nation's largest drug distribution companies for $590 million that will be divvied up among hundreds of tribal nations, but the Cherokee Nation negotiated its own separate settlement with drug manufacturers and distributors.
One of the things Hoskin and other Cherokee Nation officials are excited about is incorporating aspects of the tribe's culture into the recovery program. In addition to having peer recovery specialists who are Cherokees, the recovery curriculum includes traditional activities like bead making, talking circles and stickball.
"A person in recovery needs to know they’re not alone," Hoskin said. "If you’re Cherokee, there’s a real cultural reason why you’re not alone. We share traditions, even if those traditions in some families haven’t been practiced in generations."
For Jennifer Lasiter, a 38-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen who struggled for years with opioid addiction after she began taking hydrocodone for a back injury, having a connection with other Cherokee citizens at her workplace has been an important part of her recovery.
"Just from working here at the Cherokee Nation, I believe that Cherokees band together and lift each other up," said Lasiter, a single mother of three children who works for the tribe's food distribution center and has been sober for five years. "As a tribe, we all feel connected in some way."