Dr. Esther Tailfeathers

Scores of concerned folks came to the new Eagle Shields Center last week to participate in a two-day Blackfeet Drug Awareness and Wellness Conference. One of the chief presenters, Theda New Breast, observed there was a “huge crowd from the Blackfoot Confederacy, Fort Belknap and the Billings Area. Non-Native nursing schools came to listen to how Dr. Esther Tailfeathers and her team have battled opioids, meth and heroin addictions and deaths from 2014-present on the Kainai Reserve.”

Dr. Tailfeathers brought a unique perspective to the conference. She related how, in 2014, she faced a fentanyl crisis in Stand Off, Alberta, where overdose rates ran around 45 per month. Her strategies included the introduction of opioid replacement therapy, prescribing suboxone, opening a safe-withdrawal site and community initiatives to address the social problems behind the crisis.

In fact, Dr. Tailfeathers said her approach to the issue has evolved over the years. Instead of simply dealing with the addiction itself, she has found it more useful to address the reasons people turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. Not only are emotional and mental trauma responsible for these behaviors, Native people are also dealing with historical trauma.

“Emotional pain coming out as physical pain is being treated with opioids,” she said. “We still need more mental and emotional health supports. People are basically self-medicating their trauma.”

With a new suboxone treatment center planned for Browning, several people asked how long it takes for a person to become well enough to be completely drug free. Her answer was that she has changed her mind about that. In the past, she said, she believed that abstinence is the only positive outcome. But in recognizing the trauma that caused the situation in the first place, she began seeing “addicts” as normal people trying to feel better. In that light, she said she could no longer act as “Mother Superior” and demand people adhere to an arbitrary schedule and came to the point of accepting each one as they are.

Some people, she said, may never be able to quit taking suboxone. But they can come much nearer to living normal lives - getting up in the morning, making breakfast, getting kids ready for school - all things that raise a person’s self respect. With this approach in Stand Off, overdose rates dropped from 45 to 11 per month.

Another issue Dr. Tailfeathers addressed was the practice of some indigenous tribes banning folks with drug problems from their reserves. Such an approach had extremely negative results, she said, since more than just one person would be banned and it left them with nowhere to go and no one to help.

Sometimes whole families who were banned went to live in nearby cities, where they arrived with no money, no job, no friends and nothing that would help them. As a result, she said many wind up in trouble with the law or involved in sex trafficking. Instead of abandoning these people, she said it would be better to find ways to help them become functioning members of society.

The two-day event showed how many folks are actively working to improve life for the Blackfeet people, and it demonstrated an increasingly positive outlook for the future.

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