Addressing The Needs of Native Communities & People Who Use Drugs During The Coronavirus Outbreak

Gwayakobimaadiziwin Bad River Needle Exchange is a community-based syringe services program operating out of the Bad River Indian Reservation. We are Anishinaabe and Ojibwe people living on the southern shore of Gichi-Gami or Lake Superior, in what is now known as northern Wisconsin. Our program serves the community of people in our region who use drugs and the people who love them. We provide sterile injection equipment, overdose prevention and naloxone distribution, sharps disposal, food and referrals. We are currently finishing a report describing our work, which also includes the results of collaborative community research conducted to share the perspectives of our program’s participants. It’s exciting to be involved in this work. As far as we can tell, this research is unique and we hope it leads to changes in the world that benefit our people.

Changes are needed right now, and have been needed for some time. According to data of the CDC and from the Wisconsin Department of Health, Native American women become HIV positive through injecting drugs at higher rates than any other group. This data point speaks volumes — it screams. Native American women who use drugs need access to their own sterile injection equipment, empowerment and education to reverse this alarming trend. Native Americans have also been dying from opioid overdose at some of the highest rates. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, rates of Hepatitis C infection among Native Americans has increased over 1000%. From our work in the community, we know that the Native Americans who inject drugs are particularly vulnerable to collateral trauma due to racial discrimination, including “bordertown” policing and difficulty accessing economic and educational opportunities, the epidemic of sexual and domestic assault and human trafficking that Native Americans experience, plus healthcare discrimination due to racial bias and poverty. These many-layered and related complications impact housing access and overall wellness. A significant portion of our program participants are homeless or very close to being homeless. Many are incarcerated in county jail facilities, which limit access to necessary healthcare for our community members. Three women recently overdosed in the Ashland County Law Enforcement Center and no treatment is provided for substance use disorder.

Today, we are doing our best to prepare for Covid-19. Thankfully, our homelands are in the interior of Turtle Island and we have had a little extra time to prepare. However, this disease is catching us with our pants down. Too many of our community members have nothing of their own, save a backpack. We are desperately searching for funds to cover temporary housing. Our fear is that the virus will hit the already vulnerable: our people in the jails and on the streets. We are doing our very best to find solutions: using our asemaa (tobacco) and offering prayers; this Saturday, women in the community will be dancing in their jingle dresses (which came to the Ojibwe to heal from the Spanish Influenza); and we’re also hunting for money and solutions, engaging in community collaborations and raising awareness. Our belief is that a society should be judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable. If we are civilized and humane, we would treat them with kindness and respect. As we are all connected through the air we breathe, and share, safeguarding the health of the vulnerable must be prioritized.