As opioids flooded tribal lands across the U.S., overdose deaths skyrocketed

Medication Disposal Greater Lowell

ADA, Okla. — Zach Williams checked himself into a hotel room, sat down on the edge of the bed and waited. Chills soon racked his body, and he started to shiver. He couldn’t keep food down. He was drenched in sweat.

For two days in 2018, the 37-year-old Native American pharmacist for the Chickasaw Nation pushed through the wrenching symptoms of opioid withdrawal, determined to go cold turkey. On the third day, he stumbled outside to his Chevy truck, where he kept a stash of pain pills hidden among his children’s dolls and McDonald’s Happy Meal toys.

Williams had spent years hooked on opioids. Alone and hurting in a hotel parking lot, he faced yet another day.

“I felt like death,” he recalled. “I loathed the person I was. … I became a slave to opioids.”

At the height of the opioid epidemic, Native Americans overdosed and died at a rate that rivaled some of the hardest-hit regions in Appalachia. Nationwide, from 2006 to 2014, Native Americans were nearly 50 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-natives, a Washington Post analysis found.

In recent months, the novel coronavirus has added to the trials of Indian country, long plagued by health disparities, poverty, housing shortages and isolation. Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Navajo Nation, with land that stretches over three Western states, have struggled with some of the highest per capita infection rates in the United States.

But tribal leaders say they have not lost sight of the ongoing devastation caused by prescription opioids.

As more than 3,000 cities and counties — along with most states — pursue billions in settlement dollars from opioid manufacturers and distributors, tribal leaders are fighting for a fair share of the proceeds through a series of lawsuits filed by Indian tribes.

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