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Generation killer

Culture | Meth addiction may be the greatest threat yet to face U.S. Indian reservations

Issue: "Minority report," Aug. 11, 2007

RAPID CITY, S.D.- As dusk settled on the four stalwart faces of Mt. Rushmore, the crowd of 20,000 awaited the famed fireworks celebration at the national monument. Soon a fifth face, animated, loomed into view: Rosebud Sioux Tribal member Robert Moore, 44, clothed in his native dress, began to sing "God Bless America." It was both solemn and energizing, sending the crowd of visitors for the July 4th performance to its feet. Moore ended with the "Lakota Flag Song." A B-1 bomber made its pass over the presidents, and for a moment the worlds of native and Anglo-Saxon America intertwined.

But shortly after the celebration, Moore returned home to the isolated Rosebud Sioux Reservation-one of 560 tribal enclaves across the United States and a territory few tourists or residents in the Mt. Rushmore audience have ever visited. Nestled hours away on the eastern end of the state, the reservation's problems are many and its laborers are few. According to Moore and others, the latest to attack his people may be the most dangerous yet: the highly addictive drug called methamphetamine, or meth.

Already plagued by poverty, substance abuse, and violence, reservations across the United States have been strategically targeted by meth dealers. Many reservations find they are too isolated and unable to effectively combat the new enemy.

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Shocked by the alarming reports from Indian Country, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are looking more closely. A July federal funding bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee highlights these alarming trends and adds $35 million for meth prevention on U.S. Indian reservations. Recent studies reveal an increase in violent crimes, child abuse, and suicide bordering on crisis levels and linked to meth's growing popularity.

But the web of problems surrounding meth use is complex, and it will take more than money to avert a crisis. Meth addicts are the most difficult drug users to treat. The rural landscape and minimal law enforcement on reservations make native Americans and reservations a popular destination for meth smuggling and clandestine drug labs. If these issues aren't effectively addressed in the next 10 years, Moore said, "Indian Country will implode."

According to Moore, who is also associate pastor at Rosebud's Christian Life Fellowship, one of the most troubling aspects of meth's stronghold on Indian Country is the strategy behind it: "The Mexican mafia came onto reservations with a Fortune 500 business plan to begin establishing places of distribution or transport into our communities," Moore said.

Wind River, Wyo., was one of the first reservations to be targeted. Mexican drug cartels brought methamphetamine onto the rural and minimally patrolled reservation in 2000, and many dealers fathered children with Native American women while getting them hooked on the illegal drug. With rampant poverty, many of these women were forced to peddle the drug to support their habit.

From there, the drug ring spread to nearby Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Yankton reservations in South Dakota and the Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska. Eventually, meth spread across Indian Country: Three-quarters of law enforcement agents on reservations across the United States say it's now the greatest drug threat to their people, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

More than 70 percent of the methamphetamine on reservations is believed to be smuggled in from Mexico. One of the Rosebud councilmen has seen and heard planes landing in Rosebud at night without lights, Moore said: "They can fly in under the radar because there are so many wide open spaces and limited law enforcement."

The rest of the meth comes from super labs in California and other states or is manufactured locally on the reservations or in nearby towns where clandestine meth labs haphazardly "cook" the contents.

Most meth ingredients are shockingly dangerous: battery acid, lye, propane, and lithium are just a few. The necessary ingredient, pseudoephedrine, has prompted several states to start tracking and limiting the quantity of cold medicine sold per customer. Several states (South Dakota included) have also enacted laws requiring landlords to disclose the prior presence of meth labs on their property.

Meth labs are a growing problem in the city as well, costing thousands of dollars per site in cleanup and resulting in an alarming increase in child neglect. In Rapid City, children were found in 100 percent of the labs seized by authorities in 2003. Children found in meth lab homes are promptly removed and forced to leave everything-including the clothes they're wearing-behind. Nationally, the number of children found in meth labs doubled between 1999 and 2001 and continues to rise.

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