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Tribal nations invest opioid settlement funds in traditional healing to treat addiction

Aneri Pattani and Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Outside the Mi’kmaq Nation’s health department sits a dome-shaped tent, built by hand from saplings and covered in black canvas. It’s one of several sweat lodges on the tribe’s land, but this one is dedicated to helping people recover from addiction.

Up to 10 people enter the lodge at once. Fire-heated stones — called grandmothers and grandfathers, for the spirits they represent — are brought inside. Water is splashed on the stones, and the lodge fills with steam. It feels like a sauna, but hotter. The air is thicker, and it’s dark. People pray and sing songs. When they leave the lodge, it is said, they reemerge from the mother’s womb. Cleansed. Reborn.

The experience can be “a vital tool” in healing, said Katie Espling, health director for the roughly 2,000-member tribe.

She said patients in recovery have requested sweat lodges for years as a cultural element to complement the counseling and medications the tribe’s health department already provides. But insurance doesn’t cover sweat ceremonies, so, until now, the department couldn’t afford to provide them.

In the past year, the Mi’kmaq Nation received more than $150,000 from settlements with companies that made or sold prescription painkillers and were accused of exacerbating the overdose crisis. A third of that money was spent on the sweat lodge.

Health care companies are paying out more than $1.5 billion to hundreds of tribes over 15 years. This windfall is similar to settlements that many of the same companies are paying to state governments, which total about $50 billion.

 

To some people, the lower payout for tribes corresponds to their smaller population. But some tribal citizens point out that the overdose crisis has had a disproportionate effect on their communities. Native Americans had the highest overdose death rates of any racial group each year from 2020 to 2022. And federal officials say those statistics were likely undercounted by about 34% because Native Americans’ race is often misclassified on death certificates.

Still, many tribal leaders are grateful for the settlements and the unique way the money can be spent: Unlike the state payments, money sent to tribes can be used for traditional and cultural healing practices — anything from sweat lodges and smudging ceremonies to basketmaking and programs that teach tribal languages.

“To have these dollars to do that, it’s really been a gift,” said Espling of the Mi'kmaq tribe. “This is going to absolutely be fundamental to our patients’ well-being” because connecting with their culture is “where they’ll really find the deepest healing.”

Public health experts say the underlying cause of addiction in many tribal communities is intergenerational trauma, resulting from centuries of brutal treatment, including broken treaties, land theft, and a government-funded boarding school system that sought to erase the tribes’ languages and cultures. Along with a long-running lack of investment in the Indian Health Service, these factors have led to lower life expectancy and higher rates of addiction, suicide, and chronic diseases.

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©2024 Kaiser Health News. Visit khn.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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