Meth takes a toll on Indian reservations
MARY CLARE JALONICK, Associated Press Writer,
Mon Jun 12, 2006
WASHINGTON - Leah
Fyten believes every family on her South Dakota
reservation has been affected by methamphetamine
use. The drug has torn apart these families, led
to increases in crime and bumped mortality rates.
And now, the director of the Flandreau Santee
Sioux Housing Authority says, it's affecting the
reservation's already desperate housing situation.
is not only ruined by meth labs, which are highly
poisonous and often difficult to spot, but also by
the destructive habits that often accompany drug
use. The housing authority on the Flandreau
reservation has spent countless dollars fixing up
holes in the walls, broken windows, ruined
appliances and other damage wrought by the violent
habits of drug users, Fyten said.
"We have a small
budget that decreases every year and families are
growing," she said. "Housing gets worse every
year. And to try to repair houses that are damaged
by alcohol and drug abuse puts a strain on your
Last year, Fyten's
reservation recruited Jay Barton to help alleviate
the problem. Barton, an Oklahoma police officer
who also works for the National American Indian
Housing Council, is traveling around the country
teaching Indian housing officials what the drug
does and how to spot it. Fyten and others say the
council's seminars are breaking through in
communities that have so far ignored and denied
the problem, helping reservations lessen meth's
Barton likes to say
he is shocking his students out of complacency.
"The response has
been tremendous," he said. "Especially with the
funding cuts that tribes have received, this is
Barton teaches his
students all about the drug — its effects, its
origins, its market and its chemistry. He shows
them pictures of users with their teeth rotting
out and tells them about the drug's poisonous
effect on children who come anywhere near it.
Indian meth use are scarce, but an administration
survey found in 2004 that almost 2 percent of the
American Indian population was using meth. Robert
McSwain, deputy director of the Indian Health
Service, told a congressional panel earlier this
month that the rate of Indians using meth appears
to have dramatically increased in the past five
This poses a major
problem for states and Indian reservations, Barton
said, as some states have passed laws that
essentially punish property owners for meth
contamination. Some landlords — including Indian
housing authorities — have been forced to pay for
cleanup of meth labs, which can cost thousands of
In addition, few
states have published standards for cleanup.
Congress is pushing the
Environmental Protection Agency
to develop federal guidelines, as there is still
some confusion about the effects of chemicals
involved in producing the drug.
Because it is often
up to the reservations to pick up the work and
also the tab, and because most of these
reservations have dramatic housing shortages,
Barton said there is a critical need for education
Indian housing has
been a problem for decades. According to a 2003
survey, an estimated 200,000 housing units are
needed immediately in Indian country and
approximately 90,000 Indian families are homeless
"If we can make
them aware of the costs and also the people that
are abusing meth, then hopefully we can cut down
on the costs," Barton said.
His seminars have
led to at least one drug bust in Juneau, Alaska,
where a maintenance worker who had attended a
seminar identified a meth lab in his hotel.
director of the Turtle Mountain Housing Authority
in North Dakota, said he hopes Barton, who gave a
seminar there in early May, will be able to
similarly help his reservation.
"We have a lot of
workers who are unaware of how meth labs look, and
we have a feeling that some of our units are being
used," Peltier said. "We hear a lot of rumors. But
when we go there, we don't know what to look for."
Joe Shirley Jr.,
president of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, says
training people to spot the drug is paramount
because meth is "cutting into the kinship we have
as Navajo people."
"If you can't catch
them there's no way to treat them," he said.
success, federal cuts to Indian programs have
threatened Barton's seminars. He conducted about
50 last year, but he said fewer are scheduled in
2006 because of less federal money allocated for
the National American Indian Housing Council, a
quasi-government organization. After that, Barton
said, organizers will have to come up with some
sort of alternative.
The meth problem in
Indian country has shown few signs of slowing,
however. At the congressional hearing earlier this
year, McSwain said the situation could be
described in a single word: "crisis."
"I think what we
are seeing now is that if communities don't take
action it's going to get a whole lot worse," said
Fyten. "It's very sad and it's very scary. People
have to wake up. There's a lot of people that
don't understand meth and how to detect it."