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.
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.
Meth violence has struck much of rural America, but the reservations are where it has hit hardest. A recent FBI study estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of violent crimes in Indian Country are meth-related-a troubling conclusion considering that the rate of violent crimes is already two and one half times that of the general population. A BIA study concluded that meth has caused significant increases in domestic violence, assaults, burglaries, sexual crimes, and child abuse. An increase in teen suicide and suicide attempts attests to the desperation and hopelessness now pervasive in Indian Country.
Psychological and genetic differences in Native Americans also make them more prone to addiction, Moore said. While usage rates on meth are falling among the general public, the number of people addicted in Indian Country continues to rise. Some reservations across the United States estimate usage rates as high as 30 percent, and even tribal leaders have not been immune to meth addiction.
Extreme poverty and lack of jobs only worsen the meth problem on reservations. It's not uncommon for families to roam between reservations and nearby cities, living with different relatives for indefinite periods of time.
Moore says "the short-lived boon of gaming" has done little to build long-term benefits. In addition, more than 80 percent of the money earned or received in the form of per capita checks-the share of the tribe's income paid to reservation residents-is spent elsewhere. For the Sioux most of it is spent in Rapid City, a four-hour drive from Rosebud.
Rapid City resident LouAnn Thudium is fully aware of meth's addictive powers: She used the drug every day for eight years after discovering the temporary relief it provided for her back pain and balm for the emotional grief she experienced after losing her mother, two brothers, and her grandmother.
Thudium, 47 and half Native American, was unable to stop using meth on her own: "Once you start using, it's really hard to stop." She eventually received a prison sentence of 10 years-five for using the drug and five for not turning herself in. "I couldn't face the thought of going to prison without [meth]," she said.
But unlike many other meth users-especially those on the reservations where treatment centers are few or nonexistent and consequences are minimal-Thudium is a success story. After several years in prison, she turned a corner. She says she found God in prison, and since then numerous faith-based ministries have guided her growth and helped her get back on her feet through Bible studies, budget classes, job training, and continual encouragement. After two and a half years behind bars, she finally reached a point where she wasn't craving the drug every day: "I think God put me there for a reason because I couldn't stop by myself, and I don't think a 30-day treatment program would have helped."
Thudium is now on parole, is drug-free, and holds a steady job at a women's shelter. But despite a gentle smile and growing sense of confidence, Thudium avoids those who are on meth (she can easily spot them by subtle nuances such as a slight tick or teeth grinding). As a case worker, she says she loves helping the people who are willing to work hard.
The BIA has asked for an additional $16 million in its 2008 budget to help combat the looming problem of meth, and a surge of law enforcement is likely to be at the forefront of budget allocations. Some reservations-such as the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico-are the size of smaller states, and law enforcement on tribal land across the United States is 42 percent below the minimum need to equal similar communities outside the reservations. Currently, 2,555 officers patrol tribal territories compared to the 4,409 needed to efficiently enforce law and order.
Meth's stronghold on Indian Country has made this deficiency even more apparent, and Moore says the jurisdictional divide in states like South Dakota means tribal land is considered a federal matter. Too often those with local solutions feel they need not apply.
Few meth treatment centers exist in Indian Country, and meth treatment differs significantly from that for other forms of addiction. It takes much longer to conquer with treatment-an average of two years-and is subsequently more costly. An insufficient number of detention centers is also a problem. Those who are convicted of drug-related crimes are often released due to lack of jail space.
The local rehab center on Rosebud only deals with alcohol and other drug addictions, but tribal leaders plan to pursue a congressionally mandated award to help fund a methamphetamine wing on the facility in 2008.
On issues such as these, Moore says it's time for both tribal and national leaders to get tough. "They come to our reservations and to our powwows, but no one has really sat down and rolled up their sleeves and either really duked it out or worked together to reach a solution on the issues that we both share."
"Meth threatens to eradicate an entire generation," BIA assistant secretary Carl Arman said, underlining the need for immediate action. "This is something we cannot waste a lot of time on."
Moore says spiritual change is urgent, too. He sees a real thirst among young people for something to believe in, but cautions that Indian Country has been "proselytized to death." Many ministries reach out to Indian Country successfully by sowing seeds through service projects and other forms of outreach. But the geographic isolation keeps others who could help from even knowing the reservations exist, and few have the know-how and tenacity to address large problems like meth use.
Moore has not lost hope, though, and claims there are tribal leaders who are willing to step up and make necessary changes. "There's not one single act of Congress to prevent us from setting up a border patrol and charging somebody five bucks every time they come in [to the reservation]," Moore said. "I always say five bucks in, twenty bucks out," he adds with a chuckle.
Moore also believes Native Americans can do more to help their own. "Being Indian is not a terminal disease. In fact, being Lakota for us is actually a benefit because what we have is generational survival mode and strength."
Common names: Crank, crystal, speed
Medical uses: For appetite suppression and to treat anesthetic overdoses, mental depression, and narcolepsy
Methods of usage: Usually injected; also sniffed or taken orally
Small dose effects: Euphoria, increased energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness
Large dose effects: Hallucinations, paranoia, tremors, high fever, convulsions, heart failure, death
Long-term effects: Physical addiction, distorted perception and thoughts, anxiety, suicidal tendencies