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A common problem


It may sound odd to some ears, but it’s accurate to say American Indians are diverse. One small example: Although high-desert reservations are an enduring image in the popular mind, only about one-eighth of Native Americans live on reservations, with roughly two-thirds inhabiting urban areas. Still, some social trends spread widely enough across Native American life to be addressed in general terms. One involves drugs and violence.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study paints what even staid government bureaucrats call “a disturbing picture of the victimization of American Indians and Alaska Natives.” The study, “American Indians and Crime,” notes that the rate at which Indians suffered violent crime in the 1992-2002 time frame was more than twice the national average and far above the victimization level reported by any other ethnic group. In recent years, methamphetamines have added to the violent crime problem and become, as the title of a heartbreaking National Congress of American Indians report suggests, “An American Problem Uniquely Affecting Indian Country.”

The November 2006 report, which draws from government and academic sources, notes that:

  • Native Americans as a group have the highest rate of methamphetamine abuse of any ethnicity in the country.
  • Reservation and rural Native communities have meth abuse rates orders of magnitude higher than the national average, with one tribe reporting that 30 percent of its employees — the community’s supposed leaders — had tested positive for meth use.
  • At least 40 percent of violent crime investigated in Indian Country involves meth in some way, according to FBI offices that deal with Native American crime.

Because of its famed and photogenic waterfalls, the Havasupai Reservation is a worldwide tourist magnet. It is also a small, isolated reservation that has been, as John Dougherty documents in this issue’s cover story, “Problems in Paradise,” overwhelmed by some negative aspects of modern life, including the meth epidemic.

Seemingly everyone who has dealt with crime on the reservation — from the local sheriff to Bureau of Indian Affairs police and tribal elders — sees the need for more cops on the ground, on the Havasupai Reservation and across Indian Country. The NCAI report contends that Indian Country is short, by at least 40 percent, of the law enforcement officers it needs, based on FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs data.

But there is a need not just for more police, but for smarter approaches to the Native American meth problem. A variety of measures — including cooperative law enforcement agreements among Native and non-Native governmental entities and multi-jurisdictional law enforcement task forces — have been undertaken to deal with meth abuse in respectful, yet effective ways. In what seem to me a few of the more innovative efforts, drug dealers are being banished from the reservation, whole families are being counseled and treated for meth abuse, and youth offenders are sometimes “sentenced” to spending time before tribal elders, who assign them cultural tasks and lessons.

Because the meth problem transcends reservation, state and even national boundaries (a significant portion of the Indian meth problem can be traced to Mexican drug cartels that target reservations), these types of cooperation and innovation deserve greatly increased federal funding. With its appeal to both law-and-order and minority-rights constituencies, increased support for anti-meth programs would seem a promising arena for cooperation in Congress, and common cause between Congress and the White House. Speed still kills, and it’s hard to think of a Republican or Democratic reason not to reduce, as far as possible, the number of its victims.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].