For over two decades, the opioid epidemic has plagued the Cherokee Nation Reservation. It has affected every facet of our tribe and society. Hundreds of Cherokee Nation citizens have died from overdoses. Tens of thousands more have suffered. It caused generational trauma and put the future of our nation at risk. Nearly a third of the opioids distributed in the state in recent years were shipped into Cherokee Nation, because irresponsible drug makers and distributors preyed on the rural communities across our reservation.
However, Cherokee Nation is addressing this plight head on. Our Attorney General’s Office aggressively pursued a lawsuit against the opioid industry that caused so much damage to the Cherokee people. Our lawsuit was the first in Indian Country.
To put those funds to work, Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and I proposed, and the Council of the Cherokee Nation approved, a new law that earmarks more than $100 million for drug addiction services, staff, programs and facilities across the 14-county reservation. This marks the largest mental health investment toward behavioral health in the tribe’s history.
We will soon break ground on the tribe’s first addiction treatment center in Tahlequah using the dollars derived from opioid settlement funds. The 17,000-square-foot treatment center will begin construction later this year.
In my last State of the Nation address over the summer, I pledged to build a drug treatment facility for the Cherokee people, by the Cherokee people, and make the opioid industry pay for every penny of it. That means we are able to bring some relief, healing and justice to the Cherokee people. At the end of the day, that’s what this law is all about.
Plans include separate dormitories for men and women at the main treatment center, and it will also include cultural amenities for residents, such as stickball fields, basketball courts and a marbles court.
The expanded law provides $73 million to construct the Tahlequah facility and additional facilities across the reservation over the next five years to meet growing behavioral health needs. We will use $10 million over 10 years for Cherokee Nation Career Services programs, which will help people in recovery find employment, while an additional $10 million will be allocated to Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health Services for innovative addiction programs and other efforts over the next 10 years.
The new Public Health and Wellness Act initiative will also provide $5 million in college scholarships for more Cherokee citizens to enter behavioral health fields and someday work in the tribe’s health system. An additional $2.8 million will be used to boost public health smoking cessation programs over the next several years.
Our $100 million investment comes on top of a number of other efforts to support public safety, including using a federal grant to open the first tribally operated harm-reduction program. This program offers syringe services to reduce drug use and prevent transmission of blood-borne infections. At the new clinic, clients can bring in previously used syringes for safe disposal to get sterile syringes. They will also be offered addiction recovery services at that time.
For somebody who’s struggling with addiction and who is willing to come into a facility, there can’t be any negative stigma. Instead, we must meet them where they are in a very compassionate way. Cherokee Nation is stepping up as a leader in this kind of compassionate addiction-fighting, health-promoting care.
The men and women of our health system, who will put these new resources to work, have my support and admiration. But, I would be remiss if I did not recognize others that helped get us to this historic moment.
Our First Lady, January, challenged me from the day I took office to leverage the great resources of the Cherokee Nation to help make whole the individuals and families damaged by addiction. This historic investment moves us closer to that vision.
The Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s office undertook these pioneering lawsuits in the pursuit of justice. Former Attorney General Todd Hembree and our current Attorney General Sara Hill, as well as their in-house and outside counsels, stared down the opioid industry and made history.
We are making an historic investment that will improve the quality of life across the Cherokee Nation. The targeting by the opioid industry caused great injury, and for every injury there should be a remedy. We are serious about getting justice for the Cherokee people by expanding and improving addiction services. These investments will help Cherokees break the chains of addiction and put many of our citizens on the path to recovery.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.