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In a Native community ravaged by opioids, youth voice compassion and hope

In a Native community ravaged by opioids, youth voice compassion and hope

The Trinity River flows through the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California.
The Trinity River flows through the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California.
Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr

We initiated the “Youth and Truth on Addiction” project to add youth voices to the Hoopa community’s efforts to address to its addiction crisis.

Situated along meandering Trinity River lands in Humboldt County, California, this Native American community became the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation by Executive Order in 1864. The reservation is one of a handful in California that allowed a Native people to remain on their homeland.

When opioids exploded into this community in the early 2000s, they were just one more substance to abuse — the new kid on a block already crowded with alcohol, heroin and methamphetamines. To accomplish our project’s goal, we contacted teachers and school administrators, medical center staff, tribal agency staff and country social service representatives, all of whom reviewed the interview questions we drafted. Teachers invited us into their classrooms to explain the project, helped in the scheduling of interviews, and distributed and collected parent release forms. Two teachers held special sessions for the project. Students from grades seven through 12 participated. We recorded several hours of interviews with 19 volunteer students in small groups and in one instance, had a stenographer record an interview with an entire class. As a result of ongoing discussions, one entire class submitted short essays.

Every student we interviewed expressed similar levels of compassion for community members struggling with substance abuse. While many wish that addicts would realize the harm they are doing to themselves and to others, their concern for people caught in the downward spiral of addiction is caring, personal and active. As one person put it:

“I mean, you know, we need to point more people in the right direction. It’s like I keep saying, it’s up to us as a community to help each other. It’s just that we, we look out after our own. And you know, being on the reservation, we really kind of are one big family. And we need to look out for our own people. I just feel that a lot of people can’t find their way. They’re lost; and we need to help them.”

The youth know all too well that addicts need more help than anything they personally might be able to do. They think the police should do more to ensure that addicts are safe. They’d like to see the police help people who are acting crazy in the streets, at the gas station or nearby hangouts. One suggested the police could bring people who are strung out to a family member or some other place where they won’t come to any harm.

The conviction that law enforcement should be doing more to keep dealers out of the community is one that students share with the adults we contacted. While federally recognized reservations are “sovereign nations” that have their own police forces, enforcement is complicated. Arrests that lead to incarceration require formal arrangements with the county sheriff and the county court system.

Hoopa’s chief of police is aware of the need to educate students about how the law works on tribal lands. And he wants to make sure that young people feel comfortable about contacting the police when they feel police help is needed. To open a dialogue with high school students, he sponsored two events during regular classroom hours in the spring of 2018. He plans to follow up this school year with events that are more interactive.

The issue of confidentiality was central to the project. Release forms gave students and their parents the option of remaining anonymous. Several wanted to protect the identity of loved ones. They understand why addicts need to know that what they confide to a counselor or therapist will not be shared. One student expressed the opinion that addicts would be more comfortable seeking local help if they knew they would be speaking with a person who was not a resident of Hoopa, where multigenerational family ties and neighborhoods are the norm and everybody knows everybody’s business. This is a sensitive insight. Knowing one’s past behaviors, sadness, losses and regrets will remain confidential can bolster the courage to seek help. But the comment also indicates a lack of knowledge about the fact that confidentiality is a central ethic of therapy professions.

When asked if addiction was an illness or a crime, the students’ unanimous answer was illness, though they feel luring peers into using drugs borders on criminal. While they understand addiction is an illness, their awareness of Hoopa’s ongoing initiatives to help the addicted is mixed. The lack of knowledge of what help is available in Hoopa for addicts, and not knowing confidentiality will be protected by local counselors, suggests these are areas where more education would be helpful. Students for whom substance abuse is a daily reality are acutely aware of the emotional needs of addicted parents, siblings and relatives. The more they know about what help is available and what it actually entails, the more actual support they feel they can provide to loved ones in trouble.

Most of the student volunteers feel the drug education they’ve received in the classroom will not prevent addiction in youth who are vulnerable — primarily because the risk of becoming addicted is so high. Drugs are easily available at school and often at home. Some felt school staff should not tolerate students coming in from lunch break smelling of marijuana. Some felt there should be backpack checks and possibly locker checks. Many felt that teachers should be more in touch with the parents.

Parents are very much a concern of the students, both those who use and those who are not aware of the risks their kids face. They feel parents need to play a more active role in protecting their children from these risks.

These truths of native youth living with addiction extend far beyond the boundaries of Hoopa. At the core of America’s addiction crisis is the exploitive worldview that created Native reservations in the first place — the view that creates winners and losers and abandons the losers to reservations, urban ghettoes, substandard rural housing, unemployment, lack of education, hunger, untreated illness, disenfranchisement, anger and despair. The starting point, as the students see it, is low self-esteem, loss, peer pressure, not belonging and the lure of fake happiness. The end of the road is off-the-wall crazy, as the youth describe homeless addicts mumbling incoherently in the streets. In between is the vast network of criminals who range from pharmaceutical executives to street dealers of hard drugs — contemporary colonizers who continue to refine the uses of exploitation.

The solutions proposed by these youth are reflections on what it means to be Native in America. Despite the impacts of historical trauma — grandparents who were shipped off to boarding school, parents who started drinking when they were teens, unemployed relatives who shoot up — Hoopa’s indigenous young people believe their strength comes their tribe’s values, customs and ceremonies, from living on their ancestral lands in a small community and from their love for one another. Their compassion for and desire to help people suffering from addiction is a testament to their heritage and a hopeful sign for the future of their generation. Two of the youngest students said their addicted parents or siblings made them afraid it might happen to them. The rest are not afraid. They are clear that they have made the choice to stay away from brain-destroying drugs and alcohol. They want to enter adulthood with the gifts their creator, their families and their tribe have given them.

Of the estimated 3,047 people living within the 12-square-mile homeland of these youth, 81.8 percent are Native. Parental income varies according to their level of education. An estimated 992 adults are employed, and the community’s median household income is estimated at $25,104, significantly below the state average and a clear explanation of why Hoopa’s poverty rate is a stark 42.7 percent. Yet Hoopa is considered safer than 38 percent of U.S. cities. As the median age of Hoopa’s residents is 29.5, the youth who shared their stories of living with addiction will soon be contributing to the numbers that map the socioeconomic context of their lives. What the current numbers do not show is the heritage they intend to carry forward.

Lessons learned

Lesson 1: When interviewing youth under the age of 18, proceed when you have signed release forms in hand. The necessity of completing the interviews in order to meet the September delivery date for the fellowship led to our biggest mistake: recording those students who hadn’t returned the signed release forms by the day of the scheduled interview. Their eagerness to participate and our eagerness to get the recording completed added up to a bad choice: going ahead anyway. Getting the release forms after the fact has been absurdly difficult. However, if we’d only interviewed the youth who did return signed release forms, the scope of our findings would have been considerably narrowed. As it is, we have a wealth of valuable “truths” to share with the community.

Lesson 2: The middle of the spring term is too short a time frame for a radio broadcast project involving middle and high school students. The interview goals of “Youth and Truth on Addiction” deserved more time than the few months we had to fulfill them. We achieved as much as we did because teachers and school staff were so supportive. As a school-year project, we could have involved more youth. We could have organized a forum that enabled youth to interact with each other and discuss the pros and cons of a youth-led initiative for addiction prevention. We could have organized an exchange between youth and school, medical, tribal agency and police staff.

Lesson 3: There’s an important distinction between journalism and gathering information as a service to the community. In a small town where everybody is known one way or another, families could be easily identified if specific incidents and stories were broadcast. Many of the stories shared were simply too personal to broadcast, so we decided not to air material that could in any way point to individuals or families. From material that was substantive in content and posed no danger of breaching confidentiality, we created six five-minute “Youth and Truth on Addiction” segments. We altered the pitch and frequency of students requesting anonymity. As the wealth of material gathered is valuable input to Hoopa’s ongoing efforts to treat and prevent addiction, the entire record is now compiled in a book for distribution to the community. In the book, names are withheld, relationships neutralized, and specifics disguised to protect confidentiality.

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