Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin says the number of babies born addicted to opioids “is currently the single greatest threat to the future of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.”
A study published in 2012 found that between 2000 and 2009 the incidence of opioid-addicted newborns nationwide increased threefold and the number of mothers using or dependent on opioids rose fivefold, numbers consistent with the increase in opioid use and abuse in the U.S. population as a whole.
Opiates are drugs derived from opium. Opioid used to refer to synthetic opiates only, but now the term is often used to refer to both opiates and opioids. Opioids include opium, heroin, morphine, Oxycontin, methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, Percocet, Vicodin, Dilaudid, meperidine, Demerol and others.
Opioid-addicted babies may show symptoms at birth or may develop symptoms over the next several days. These symptoms occur because the child is withdrawing from the drug that it had received in utero from its mother, who was using the drug during her pregnancy. The symptoms may include a high-pitched cry, jitteriness, tremors, convulsions, sweating, fever, mottling, excessive sucking or rooting, poor feeding, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the article “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” by Ashraf H. Hamdan et al.
If non-drug interventions such as holding and swaddling do not reduce the child’s suffering, then the babies often need to be treated with pharmaceuticals, such as methadone. The drug is administered to stop the withdrawal symptoms and then reduced little by little to wean the child off both the drug it had in its system in the first place (which could also have been methadone) and the methadone or other drug used to treat the withdrawal.
Benjamin is committed to finding ways to reduce the number of opioid-addicted babies born to tribal members. In her State of the Band speech in January, she said she had met with elders in the community to get their ideas on how to deal with the crisis. “The elders were deeply moved and extremely concerned. One thing all agreed upon: Babies are our most precious gift from the Creator and our main job in life is to protect that gift.”
The elders had a number of insights and suggestions, said Benjamin. “First, protecting the life begins before a woman becomes pregnant. Our little ones are learning right now how to be parents from the adults who take care of them.
“Second, we all know women don’t become pregnant on their own. Our young men are responsible for those lives as much as the women and have a duty to help the baby come into this world healthy. As families, we must do more to hold all of our sons and grandsons accountable for raising, caring for and providing for their children.
“Third, protecting the new sacred life is also a community responsibility…. I was told again and again the family members know who’s using and they know who’s selling…. It is not enough for the government to have a zero-tolerance policy. Every family in this room must have a zero-tolerance policy.
“Fourth, elders said the family must do what it takes to get the woman help.
“Fifth, elders have said that this is a community-wide problem that requires a community-wide response.”
The elders have identified an overarching principle for dealing with the problem, said Benjamin. “Of all the suggestions, there was one common theme that came up time and time again. We must, as families, as a community and as a government entity unify around our values, our culture and our language. We need our culture in order to live healthy lives.”
Benjamin explained that the reason some Mille Lacs tribal members were so susceptible to drug abuse was historical. “In 2015 we still deal with the aftermath of 150 years of attempts to destroy our culture and our identity. Forced assimilation, attempted genocide, relocation and boarding schools might be things of the past but the ghosts of these policies still haunt us today. Science has now proven what our elders say is true, that we have blood memory,” she said.
“People don’t decide to ruin their lives with alcohol and drugs. Those who are addicted are trying … to numb the pain that our elders say is caused by historical trauma. Maybe we cannot ever be free of this blood memory, but we can begin to heal ourselves and heal our children by reclaiming our language and culture. Our elders say that taking care of our Anishinaabe spirit is the only way to ease the pain,” said Benjamin.
To turn that insight into action, Benjamin announced that the Mille Lacs chapter of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations was taking the lead in organizing a band-wide conference on neonatal abstinence syndrome to take place in March. This conference will focus on mothers and grandmothers at the Mille Lacs reservation. “We can regain our strength as people because our strength as Anishinaabe is also a part of our blood memory,” she said.
A second conference planned for the summer will focus on developing policy and an action plan and will involve health officials, elected leaders and tribal members from around the state. The goal of this conference will be to plan a statewide response to the problem of neonatal abstinence syndrome.