Education Week - January 10, 2018 - 25
BY EVIE BLAD
There were over 350 opioid-related deaths within the
Cherokee Nation between 2003 and 2014, according to the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC
acknowledges that these numbers are often underestimated
because they do not account for deaths in which opioids
were a contributing factor that complicated other diseases.
Vastly larger numbers of Cherokee citizens suffer daily
from the health and social consequences of opioid abuse
and addiction. Nearly every family has faced the epidemic
through personal experience or the eyes of a loved one. The
Cherokee Nation leadership has witnessed and listened to
these stories from the frontlines of the epidemic for years-
and the stories continue to multiply at an alarming rate.
Traditions are a crucial aspect of any culture. The passing
of customs and beliefs between generations helps to define
a people and create communities. In some of our schools,
students are taught the Cherokee language and participate
in cultural activities like gourd dancing and stickball. Other
children learn these traditions at home through older family
members. All of this, however, is in danger of being lost in
the Cherokee Nation as more resources are being devoted to
fighting the opioid epidemic, and the lives of our families-
and children, in particular-are thrown into chaos. Indeed,
the opioid crisis has resulted in so many Cherokee babies
being born addicted that there are not enough Cherokee
foster homes to care for them, and as a result, they are
separated from their culture from their first moments of life.
Even those who are lucky enough to remain in a Cherokee
family may struggle with lifelong health complications and
We realize that to successfully battle the opioid epidemic,
we must fight it at its source. Funding rehabilitation
programs, government assistance, a Suboxone clinic that
offers opioid-addiction treatment, and a high-quality
health-care system is necessary but not sufficient. No matter
how much the Cherokee Nation invests in these programs,
the opioid epidemic will continue to hold us in its grip unless
we take dramatic action to stem the oversupply of opioids
into our community.
In our quest to understand the epidemic and how best to
fight it, we looked at the supply chain from top to bottom,
and our best course of action was quickly apparent. The
opioid distributors and pharmacies are required by law to take
affirmative steps to ensure that dangerous opioid drugs are only
provided to individuals with a legitimate medical need for them.
The companies named in our lawsuit knowingly failed to
fulfill their duties, and they must be held accountable for the
damage they have caused. They must be forced to change
their behavior to end this scourge. We would hope that
they will decide to meet their legal and moral obligations
voluntarily, but, if not, our lawsuit will force them to do so.
This lawsuit is symbolic of the centuries-long struggle
we have faced throughout history. For too long, we have
been targeted by groups seeking to exploit us. At the
end of the day, success in this lawsuit will mean curbing
the flow of diverted opioids to ensure that our Cherokee
families can stay together and pass our customs and
traditions down through future generations. However,
if these companies remain unchecked, the drugs will
continue to be diverted into our community. And the
crisis of addiction will continue. n
pioid abuse is a problem that has crossed racial,
economic, and cultural boundaries.
It's also a problem that increasingly affects
the work of schools, particularly in areas that
have been hardest hit by the public-health crisis,
including Appalachia, the rural South, and tribal communities
like the Cherokee Nation.
In 2015, more than 33,000 people lost their lives to opioid
abuse, according to the most recent data available from
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a
nationally representative 2016 survey, 18 percent of 12th
graders said they had used a prescription drug without
Across the country, school districts have reworked
their drug-prevention curriculum to address prescription
painkillers and illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl. And high
schools are increasingly stocking overdose drugs, such as
Narcan, and training staff members to use them.
The epidemic has sparked social and emotional needs in
children-related to issues like broken family relationships-
that educators must address to help students succeed in the
classroom. This comes at a time when schools are increasingly
working to engage parents and communities and to address
the nonacademic concerns that can hinder learning-such
concerns as poverty and adverse childhood experiences that
can actually alter a child's brain development. All those issues
cross currents in the opioid crisis.
When adults abuse or overdose on opioids, they stir up a
wake of issues for their children, district leaders recently
told Education Week. Children whose parents can no longer
care for them are now in state care or being raised by aunts,
grandparents, even great-grandparents, according to school
There's work to address the issue on a national level.
A White House task force has recommended enhanced
prevention programs, screening, and counseling in schools,
and last fall, President Donald Trump declared opioid abuse a
public-health emergency. But some say those actions aren't
enough and that increased federal funding will be necessary
to address the issue.
Meanwhile, some state governments have taken a
more aggressive approach, challenging drugmakers and
distributors in court.
The Cherokee Nation filed its own lawsuit in the district
court of the Cherokee Nation in April, becoming the first
tribal group to take legal action on the issue. Drug distributors
and pharmacies failed to fulfill their role as a "check" on the
flow of prescription drugs, ensuring that they were not being
misused, says the complaint.
Defendants in the case have contested the Cherokee
Nation's claims and challenged the court's jurisdiction over
the issue. n
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