Addicted On The Rez
It's not easy growing up on an Indian reservation. Just ask Jessica Edwards. She's only 15, but she's fled more foster homes than she can count. Jessica's from the Lummi Reservation, west of Bellingham. She saw her parents destroy themselves with drug abuse and domestic violence. It got so bad the state stepped in and took her away. Still, life off the rez didn't seem much better.
Edwards: "It sucks being in foster care. It really doesn't seem fair at all. You don't get the chance to be normal if you're in foster care. You get told what to do and how to do it and everything by people you don't even know."
At first, Jessica didn't know she could leave a foster family. She thought she was stuck. Once she found out she did have a choice, she never stayed longer than 30 days. All the change stressed her out. She snuck out time and time again to get high, even while in treatment. Finally, she ran away. She was gone for a week, walking and hitching rides for over 300 miles.
When she got back to Lummi, she went to Se>Eye>Chen. Se>Eye>Chen is a transitional youth home that gives shelter, counseling and drug treatment for kids in flux between their families and foster care.
The Lummis built Se>Eye>Chen after realizing they'd spent too much money sending kids off the rez to get help. But Jessica needed a more permanent place to go. She couldn't live with her mom and six brothers. Staying with her dad was also out of the question.
Edwards: "He never has any heat or electricity, or anything like that, so that's when he goes to my auntie's house. Just when he like needs to eat and shower up, and stuff. Pretty much his house, he just uses it for sleeping. Do you see him? I am not allowed to. But I get along with him, I love him and everything. I wish I could be around him. But he's a trigger."
Jessica found a home in the Lummi Youth Academy. It's a tribal dorm that gives kids a safe place to sleep and study. Her mom Tracey said the academy gave Jessica the chance at a better life.
James: "Being a single mother on a fixed income, it was really a financial burden. This, um, academy has a lot to offer. It's kind of like one big family. I see it as a great big mansion with, like, 40 kids in it, you know."
Tracey James is a recovering drug addict. Aside from Jessica, she has seven children, like her late sister, who died from heart failure in her 20s after years of hard drugs. Tracey's parents have helped raise more than a dozen grandchildren displaced by drug abuse. There are a lot of elders, aunties and uncles raising Lummi children not their own. When they're worn out, they turn to the Lummi Youth Academy.
Darrell Hillaire is the academy's program director. He used to be Lummi tribal chairman. He said drug abuse is a generational problem that's forced many into the foster care system.
Hillaire: "One hundred percent of kids that have ended up in the system end up there because there's drug and alcohol related problems in the home. It's pretty astounding."
Many students come to the academy laden with grief at the abuse they've witnessed in their families. The pain can push the kids to numb themselves with drugs for momentary relief. The academy's counselors try to undo that cycle by focusing on the kids' futures.
Hillaire: "We encourage our kids to work on those issues, so that they don't pass it onto their kids. That the things that happened to them, it's the last time it's going to happen in their family. That we're going to put this to an end with you."
The academy's helped 110 high school students since it opened in late 2008. To live there, the kids have to stay clean and go to school and counseling sessions. The mentors provide structure for kids who never had any.
Hillaire: "Oh, get to bed on time, do your chores, you know, keep your room clean, be respectful. Something that needs to be taught in the home, and then you realize that well, maybe they didn't have that at home. So, you know, that's our job."
The Lummi are an ancient people with a young population: 60 percent of the tribe is under 24 years old. It's a community fractured not only by drugs, but by poverty. The fault lines that divide them snake back to the 1800s, when they were devastated by smallpox and herded onto their reservation on the peninsula west of Bellingham.
In 1855, the Lummi and other tribes signed a treaty giving the state most of their ancestral lands in exchange for keeping their right to fish. Lummi children were sent to federal boarding schools. They were beaten for speaking their native language. When the families were reunited, they didn't know the words to knit themselves back together.
Hunter: "Our kids come here and they have no touch with culture, even though they may live on the reservation, they don't know anything. They don't know anything about indigenous plants, medicines."
That's Adrienne Hunter. She's the director of the transitional youth home Se>Eye>Chen.
Hunter: "Our kids come here, they have no knowledge of a higher power, a creator. They don't have an anchor to hold onto. They hang onto their substance, their gangs."
Federal policies isolated the Lummi from their culture. But geography plugged them into the drug trade. The Lummi reservation is a few miles off I–5 and less than 30 miles from the Canadian border. The highway runs all the way south to Mexico. Long sections follow old Native footpaths.
Now, drug traffickers whiz along its thick vein of concrete. They target Indian country. Rez crimes often slip through tribal, federal and state authorities. FBI investigations in Washington Indian country dropped dramatically in the wake of 9/11.
So the story often goes like this. Gangs send traffickers to find lonely Indian women to befriend. They move onto the rez and start growing weed, making meth and selling all kinds of drugs, like black tar heroin. Prescription pills like Oxycontin are especially popular. Tribal police can't arrest non–natives or follow drugs to their source off the reservation.
The dealers aren't all outsiders. But it's hard to send people to jail in a community where nearly everyone is somebody's cousin. The drug problem got so bad the Lummi turned to their treaty to find traditional tribal justice. Drug dealers became known as enemies of the people who could be banished from the Lummi Nation. Banishment means you lose all tribal rights. You can't even step onto the rez.
John Jefferson was a fisherman like his father. He also drank hard, like his dad. But the fishing went sour. The runs collapsed under the weight of industrial–scale harvesting. And John became a junkie who dealt crack to his own people, the Lummi. He served time in federal prison. The tribe moved to banish him. John said it was like losing his soul.
Jefferson: "The worst thing that would ever happen to me in my life was to be banished from the rez, and not to have my fishing rights, or to be able to get my health benefits, or not live on the reservation."
John's life partner was also imprisoned for dealing crack. She died days after getting out. Their children were left in the care of relatives. John spent eight months in solitary. He reflected on the choices that brought him from life as a Lummi fisherman to a federal prison in California.
Once a week, the wardens let John sweat with other Native prisoners. Sweats are purification ceremonies that began with the Plains Indians. John said the prison sweat lodge was built traditionally, using willow branches. The convicts covered the low dome with blankets and tarps and heated it with fire–baked rocks. An old man led the ceremony, pouring water and herbs on the rocks. The inmates prayed and sweated.
Johnson: "We sang prayer songs, we sang healing songs. He says you're going to see something while we sweat cause we fasted at the same time. And what I seen was pretty spiritual. And the old man said you're going to be a pipe carrier. And the old man told me whatever you seen in that lodge is going to be your walk of life."
John had found his calling. He would help Lummi kids stay clean and sober, as he had become.
He was accepted back into the tribe. John was too late to keep his eldest sons away from heroin, alcohol and the prison life, but he's raising his youngest boy. And he began volunteering, running sweats and healing circles for the Lummi. John now works as a mentor at Se>Eye>Chen.
Johnson: "I seen these ones come in broken; I try to heal them. Tell them there's somebody out there that loves them, that they need to be strong, you know, and they need to learn how to pray. You know, I tell them, you never want to go to prison. I wasted 37 years of my life drinking and drugging. Probably made over $2, 3 million but I don't have nothing to show for it."
Mentors like John, Adrienne and Darrell have helped a lot of kids. Like Jessica, who struggles with staying clean while being close to her family. She's turning 16 soon.
Jessica: "I don't want to do drugs. I want a better life for myself. My dad, he smokes weed, he's done all kinds of different drugs, and I look at him, and I do not want a life like that. And I look at Darrell, and I'd rather have a life like that. So pretty much, that's how I see it: If I stay away from drugs, I'll end up like Darrell."
Jessica had talked about moving to her mom's house. The last time I tried to contact her, she was no longer at the Youth Academy. Without warning, she had stopped showing up. They had to ask her to leave.
I'm Kristen Young for KUOW News.
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- Addicted On The Rez
- Lummi Youth Academy
- Lummi Vital Statistics
- Pathways for Native Students 2010: A Report on Washington State Colleges and Universities (PDF)
- 'Department of Justice Announcements of Indian Country Prosecutions,' US Attornet Office, Western District of Washington
- Criminal Exploitation of Washington State Tribal Lands 2009 (PDF)