Why Obesity and Heart Disease Hit Harder in Indian Country

Woman from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs prepares salmon. (Photo: Alyssa Macy)

Woman from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs prepares salmon. (Photo: Alyssa Macy)

And how to fix it.

By Francie Diep, Pacific Standard

The Navajo Nation covers 27,413 square miles. Serving that entire area, the territory has just 10 grocery stores. This means that, in order to get fresh, affordable produce, some Navajo Nation residents must drive at least 155 miles round-trip, according to one recent study.

This makes the Navajo Nation, like many other American Indian reservations, a food desert—a region in the United States where residents can’t easily buy fresh, healthy, affordable food. (Because of their setting, these food deserts are unlike those that normally show up in the news, which tend to be in urban centers.) In recent years, American public health researchers and policy experts have done a lot to document the effects of food deserts on people’s health, and to suggest solutions. Yet, in all that talk, nothing quite seemed like it would work for the people Crystal Echohawk and Janie Simms Hipp serve. “The policy levers were off,” Hipp says. “They were not a good fit because of the uniqueness of Indian Country.”

Hipp is an agriculture lawyer who directs a research institute at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Echohawk runs her own consulting firm in Colorado that advises non-profits working on American Indian issues. Together, they advocate for American Indians to gain better access to healthy food, which would in turn reduce rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related ills that run rampant in the Native American population as a whole. Over 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults are overweight or obese; about half of American Indian children are at an unhealthy weight; and it’s estimated 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have pre-diabetes. Compare those statistics to American adults in general, two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese, and 27 percent of whom are estimated to have pre-diabetes.

“Oftentimes, when conversations are had with policymakers or philanthropy or public health, people just turn away and say, ‘We don’t know where to start. The problems are too big for us to solve.’ But there’s no shortage of opportunity for real change.”

Conventional fixes probably won’t work. But Echohawk and Hipp have ideas for what will. Together with lawyer-activist Wilson Pipestem, they put together a report for the American Heart Association about how to address the unique burden of diet-related disease that the U.S.’s indigenous people carry. “I think, oftentimes, when conversations are had with policymakers or philanthropy or public health, people just turn away and say, ‘We don’t know where to start. The problems are too big for us to solve,'” Echohawk says. “But there’s no shortage of opportunity for real change.”

Pacific Standard recently talked over the phone with Echohawk and Hipp about what makes it hard to stay healthy while living on reservations and trust lands—what’s collectively called Indian Country—and how a local food movement and cultural programs can make it easier:

What are some examples of policy ideas for reducing obesity that weren’t good fits for Indian Country?

Janie Hipp: I’d served for six years or so with the Bush and Obama administrations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I was always struck when policy, at the national level, was really bearing down on food deserts. They talked about encouraging retail food outlets to carry more healthy food products or fresher produce. That’s great, but if you have no retail food outlet, then you’re actually talking about a whole different policy arena that you need to wrap your head around.

Crystal Echohawk: There’s just the assumption that people already had outlets, that they were in urban centers. There’s also the lack of understanding of tribes as sovereign nations and their ability to institute a level of policy change over their tribal citizens. Now, a lot of the policy change that is being advocated is at the state level. But when we really look at the biggest levers of change in Indian Country, we look at the level of tribal government and we also look at federal because of the government-to-government relationship that tribes have with the federal government.

I saw that the Navajo Nation this year instituted a tax on junk food. It also made fresh fruits and vegetables tax-free. I can’t imagine a state doing that. New York City tried to institute a sugary-drinks tax and it failed.

CE: There’s immense opportunity for real change in Indian Country. What Navajo Nation did, I think, is just one example. There are just so many more opportunities aside from a tax.

What’s one of your favorite ideas for improving healthy food access in Indian Country?

JH: The vast majority of the foods that are raised for human consumption on our reservations leave the borders of the reservation. If the levers are pulled in such a way that feeding people healthy, local food comes first, before you feed folks outside of those reservation boundaries—you can do both—then we are within reach of having a major shift in our health. And oh, by the way, [by selling locally grown food locally] we also can build strong rural and remote economies.

Why does all the food leave?

JH: What is lacking in all rural communities—it’s not just Indian Country, but the lack is more profound—is the infrastructure necessary to do the harvesting, grading, packing, storage, freezing, all of those things that allow you to store and move food around more locally. Re-building those infrastructure pieces, or building them outright, is an important piece that can’t be ignored.

What’s wrong with growing food on tribal land and having that shipped out, and then having something else shipped in, instead?

JH: Being able to retain as much healthy local food around our communities as possible is going to lead to fresher produce being available to us. On the meat side, that’s been a phenomenon for years, where livestock is raised on our reservations, but they leave the reservation boundaries and, in many cases, never return. Or they make a circuitous route across the U.S. before they get back. Think about the cost associated with that. All you have to do is go into a grocery store close by any of our remote reservations and you will noticeably see the cost of food is much higher, and that’s not even talking about Alaska.

Why do you think American Indians have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than Americans in general?

CE: Poverty is a root cause. It’s a lot cheaper to go to McDonald’s and order stuff off the Dollar Menu than it is to go in and buy fruits and vegetables in a store when you’re looking at many families that are surviving on one paycheck and feeding a dozen people.

Another important component is how we’re addressing historical trauma within Native American people. There’s been increasing research out there linking trauma to health disparities. When you look at the history regarding Native Americans, of forced removal, of genocide, the boarding schools, it’s layer upon layer of trauma that Native American people, over generations, have sustained

Feds, tribal police target heroin ring centered on 2 Minnesota reservations

By Elizabeth Mohr, Pioneer Press

Minnesota’s U.S. attorney on Thursday announced an indictment against 41 people and the “dismantlement” of a multistate heroin-trafficking ring that targeted American Indian reservations.

Investigators tracked the ring, led by Omar Sharif Beasley, 37, for the past year and confiscated 2 kilograms of heroin, 1 kilogram of cocaine, hundreds of pills and numerous weapons, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said. The operation netted the traffickers millions of dollars, he said.

“With Beasley out of business, there will be less heroin sold in Minnesota,” Luger said.

The group’s business model allegedly centered on distributing drugs on the Red Lake and White Earth reservations in Minnesota, as well as at least one reservation in North Dakota, though the dealers themselves were not tribal members.

Tribal police who spoke at Thursday’s news conference with Luger said drug use on the reservations has become epidemic and is tearing families apart.

William Brunelle, director of public safety for the Red Lake Tribal Police Department, said, “The pain and suffering surrounding addiction, overdoses … is devastating.”

In 2007, American Indians accounted for less than 3 percent of those seeking treatment for opiate addiction in Minnesota, Brunelle said. By 2014, that figure had risen to more than 13 percent, he said. “We are nearing a crisis.”

Randy Goodwin, director of public safety for the White Earth Tribal Police Department, called the effect on the tribal community “horrific.”

“Many lives, families and communities have been destroyed by this poison,” Goodwin said.

“Our elders have been victims of threats, abuse and theft. Home invasions and crimes of violence have increased. And sadly, even some of our newborn babies have been exposed as a result of mothers using during pregnancy.”

Goodwin said that, while law enforcement focuses on drug trafficking, efforts must be made to ensure a “safe environment for future generations.” Plans and programs are underway to address addiction and to keep families together, he said. “Now the hard work of healing and wellness begins.”

With 35 of the 41 defendants in custody, Dan Moren, special agent in charge of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s office in the Twin Cities, called the bust a “dismantlement of a significant prescription drug- and heroin-trafficking organization.”

Luger said the indictment covers nearly everyone involved in the organization.

He offered a warning “to those who would try to step into the shoes of the Beasley organization to sell heroin in Indian country,” saying his office and law enforcement would investigate and arrest people who bring heroin into the state.

“(We) will do everything we can to protect the people of Minnesota in every corner of Minnesota, from the trafficking of heroin,” Luger said.

A little more than a year ago Luger announced his office’s involvement in “Project Exile,” which launched a focused effort to combat heroin trafficking in Minnesota and netted more than 100 arrests, he said. That investigation produced information about the organization and structure of trafficking rings, as well as names of key players, Luger said. The focused effort led investigators to the Beasley operation, allegedly importing drugs from Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Beasley’s 40 co-defendants range in age from 23 to 67 and hail from the Twin Cities, Detroit, Chicago, Red Lake, White Earth, Duluth, Milwaukee and elsewhere in Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Heroin and opiate use has been a growing problem in Minnesota in recent years.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 568 emergency room visits for heroin poisoning in Minnesota in 2012, up from 111 in 2001.

According to an April report tracking drug trends in the Twin Cities, “heroin accounted for a record-high 14.6 percent of total treatment admissions in 2014, compared with 14.0 percent in 2013. This compares with 7.8 percent in 2010, and 3.3 percent in 2000.”

Seizures of heroin and prescription drugs in Minnesota declined in 2014, but the DEA and Hennepin County reported increased numbers, the Drug Abuse Dialogues report said.

In Hennepin County, there were 102 opiate-related deaths in 2014, compared with 132 in 2013 and 84 in 2012.

Data for heroin-related deaths for earlier years have been unreliable due to inconsistent or nonspecific categorization, though efforts are underway to better track them.

Moren pointed out that the heroin coming to Minnesota is cheap and relatively pure and that Beasley and his crew peddled both heroin and prescription drugs.

With the bust of a major supplier, Moren said, the focus should now be on treatment and rehab. “When the demand stops, so does the supply,” he said.

Dan Bauman contributed to this report. Elizabeth Mohr can be reached at 651-228-5162. Follow her at twitter.com/LizMohr.

Department of Justice Releases Second Report to Congress on Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions

By Yuma News Now

Washington, DC – The Department of Justice released today its second report to Congress entitled Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions, which provides a range of enforcement statistics required under the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, as well as information about the progress of the Attorney General’s initiatives to reduce violent crime and strengthen tribal justice systems.

The report, based on data compiled from the case management system used by U.S. Attorney’s Offices (USAO), shows prosecutors in 2013 continued to bring substantial numbers of cases to federal court (a 34 percent increase over FY 2009 numbers) and prosecute a substantial majority of all cases referred to them.   Of the cases that were declined for federal prosecution, most were declined for insufficient evidence or because they were referred to another prosecuting authority, such as the tribe, for potential prosecution.

“As detailed in this report, the Department of Justice is making good on our commitment to strengthen cooperation with sovereign tribes, reduce violent crime, and ensure justice for every individual,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “From our work to empower Indian women under the landmark Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, to the task force we established to safeguard children in Indian country from violence and abuse, we have made significant strides – in close partnership with tribal nations – to bolster the safety and security of all American Indian and Alaska Native communities.   As we move forward, we will continue to expand on this critical work; to deepen our ongoing efforts; and to reaffirm our dedication to the promise of equal rights, equal protection, and equal justice for all.”

Although declination rates are an imperfect means of evaluating the effectiveness of criminal justice in Indian country or elsewhere, the report shows that with few exceptions, areas where the largest populations of American Indian people live and suffer from the most serious crime rates, such as the Southwest and the northern plains states (which together handled approximately 70 percent of the 2,542 cases resolved in 2013), federal declination rates were the lowest in the nation.   For instance, South Dakota had the second to highest number of cases resolved in the country last year, 470 cases, and one of the lowest declination rates of 26 percent.   Arizona resolved the highest number of cases, 733 cases, and had a declination rate of 28 percent.

Associate Attorney General Tony West announced the findings in remarks to the Four Corners Indian Country Conference today on the Navajo Nation in Flagstaff, and met separately with the Attorney General’s advisory subcommittee on Native American issues to discuss the report, among other matters.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented era of collaboration among U.S. Attorneys’ offices and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors across the country,” said Associate Attorney General West.   “This report shows the fruits of this continuing partnership between the federal government and American Indian tribes, including enhancing training and capacity building for tribal court systems and improving responses to victims in Indian country.”

“Over the past five years, the Justice Department and our tribal partners have taken important steps forward on our journey toward a safer Indian Country,” said Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota and chair of the Attorney General’s advisory subcommittee on Native American issues.   “Vigorous enforcement of federal laws is vitally important to strengthening public safety on American Indian reservations.   We are pleased to see in this report that U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country continue to work hard to remove the most dangerous offenders and work closely with tribal law enforcement and prosecutors.  These promising numbers are the direct result of this enhanced communication and collaboration.”

“The FBI continues to be committed to public safety in Indian Country,” said FBI Assistant Director Joseph S. Campbell. “Our partnership with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies remains strong as we continue to aggressively address violent crime and victimization in tribal communities.”

The information contained in the report shows the following:

  • The Justice Department’s prioritization of Indian country crime has continued to result in substantial numbers of prosecutions, despite resource constraints that impacted the U.S. Attorney community in 2013.   Between FY 2009 and FY 2012, the number of cases the department filed against defendants in Indian country increased nearly 54 percent.   In FY 2013, due to fiscal challenges, overall case filings in Indian country declined somewhat compared to FY 2012, but still remained 34 percent above the number of cases filed when the department first began its department-wide tribal justice initiative in 2009.   Notwithstanding the fiscal impact of the sequester, reduced budgets, and a hiring freeze, federal agents and prosecutors continued to focus their efforts on improving public safety in Indian country.
  • A substantial majority of Indian country criminal investigations opened by the FBI were referred for prosecution.
  • A substantial majority of Indian country criminal cases opened by the United States Attorneys’ Offices were prosecuted.
  • USAO data for CY 2013 show that 34 percent (853) of all Indian country submissions for prosecution (2,542) were declined for prosecution.   In CY 2012, USAOs declined approximately 31 percent (965) of all (3145) Indian country submissions for prosecution.   USAO data for CY 2011 indicate that just under 37 percent (1,041) of all Indian country submissions for prosecution (2,840) were declined.
  • The most common reason for declination by USAOs was insufficient evidence (56 percent in CY 2013, 52 percent in CY 2012, and 61 percent in CY 2011).
  • The next most common reason for declination by USAOs was referral to another prosecuting authority (21 percent in CY 2013, 24 percent in CY 2012, and 19 percent in CY 2011).

The most common reason FBI Indian country investigations were closed administratively without referral for prosecution was that the investigation concluded that no federal crime had occurred.

  • For instance, all but 30 of the 164 death investigations the FBI closed administratively in CY 2013 were closed because the FBI established that the death was due to causes other than homicide – i.e., accidents, suicide, or death from natural causes.

Other important developments in FY 2013:

VAWA Pilot Projects

The fight against domestic violence in Indian country has been an especially important priority for the Department of Justice, and in 2013, Congress and this administration took an historic step forward with the passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013), which the President signed into law on March 7, 2013.

Congress, in VAWA 2013, provided new tools to fight domestic violence in Indian country, and the department spared no time utilizing them.   From the date the act took effect, March 7, 2013, through the end of fiscal year 2013, U.S. Attorneys with prosecutorial responsibilities in Indian country have charged defendants with the amended provisions of the federal assault statutes that strengthened penalties for domestic assault offenses, such as strangulation and stalking.   And, while the new law’s tribal criminal jurisdiction provision takes effect generally on March 7, 2015, under VAWA 2013’s “Pilot Project” provisions, the department recently approved three tribes’ applications voluntary “Pilot Project” to begin exercising special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction sooner.   These tribes – the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington – will be the first tribes in the nation to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over crimes of domestic and dating violence, regardless of the defendant’s Indian or non-Indian status, under VAWA 2013.

Strengthening Partnerships and Support for Tribal Self-Governance

Strengthening partnerships and tribal self-governance was a major theme of the Attorney General’s message to tribal leaders on Nov.13, 2013, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, where he announced a proposed statement of principles   to guide the department’s work with federally recognized tribes.   As the Attorney General said, “ As a result of these partnerships – and the efforts of everyone here – our nation is poised to open a new era in our government-to-government relationships with sovereign tribes.”

U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country are engaged in an unprecedented level of collaboration with tribal law enforcement, consulting regularly with them on crime-fighting strategies in each district.   One important example of this is the department’s enhanced Tribal Special Assistant U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) program.   Tribal SAUSAs are cross-deputized tribal prosecutors who are able to prosecute crimes in both tribal court and federal court as appropriate.   These Tribal SAUSAs serve to strengthen a tribal government’s ability to fight crime and to increase the USAO’s coordination with tribal law enforcement personnel.   The work of Tribal SAUSAs can also help to accelerate a tribal criminal justice system’s implementation of TLOA and VAWA 2013.

Read the entire report at www.justice.gov/tribal/tloa.html

Read about the Justice Department’s efforts to increase public safety in Indian County at www.justice.gov/tribal/accomplishments.html

Native Americans struggle to bring teachers to Reservation Schools

By TOM LUTEY, The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Desperate for new teachers, Hays/Lodge Pole School District Superintendent Margaret Campbell has pulled out all the stops: A three-bedroom home to live in for $230 a month, with utilities paid; a $1,000 signing bonus; and even a dollar-for-dollar match for up to $300 on monthly student loan payments.

And still, luring teachers to the school district on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in the shadow of the piney Little Rocky Mountains is extremely difficult. Starting pay is about $26,000 a year.

“A lot of people don’t want to live in a remote area,” said Campbell, who this summer is looking to hire three teachers and a principal. “It’s isolated here.”

Isolated, and challenging. In Montana, teachers are in demand, especially those capable of teaching special education, English and math. A report issued each December on teacher shortages listed 1,169 teaching vacancies, including 463 in critical areas like special education, English, math and science. The shortages are worst on American Indian reservations and rural schools on the outskirts of reservations.

American Indians as a whole represent a relatively small 11.8 percent of Montana’s 142,000 K-12 students, but in 40 Montana school districts American Indians make up at least half the student body. Of those districts, 34 did not meet No Child Left Behind standards.

The 20 most needy schools are all located in these areas. The schools are not only remote, but also lead the state in the percentage of students eligible for federally subsidized free and price-reduced school lunches, as well as low student achievement based on No Child Left Behind results.

The economies on reservations are the worst in the state, with double-digit unemployment rates on all but one reservation. On the Crow Reservation, the rate is 25 percent, according to Montana’s Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Poverty at home and the social problems that come with it make school that much more difficult.

“I think on reservations there are major challenges in terms of poverty and associated issues,” said Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. “We talk a lot about the trauma the students bring to schools and it also affects teachers.”

Quinlan authors OPI’s annual report on critical teacher shortages. The report helps steer Montana’s Quality Educator Assistance Program, which provides up to four years of direct student loan payment for teachers who meet critical needs. There was money available for 246 teachers in 2014.

Both state and federal governments have tried to sweeten the pot for teachers willing to work in rural American Indian schools, but superintendents like Campbell say not all hurdles can be overcome with incentives.

“If you’re married, whether it’s your wife, or your husband, they need to work. On reservations there are strict hiring preferences for tribal members, Campbell said. “Your spouse is going to have a hard time getting a job.”

There’s also a professional isolation that can be difficult for teachers with a specialized skill, said Dan McGhee, Pryor Public Schools superintendent. Even in rural schools teachers have peers, but they often don’t have colleagues who specialize in the same subjects who can compare notes.

The student population is also fairly transitory: A significant number of students move in and out of Pryor School during the academic year, which makes teaching difficult. Teachers new to the school have to be ready for that challenge.

“The eight kids you start with in third grade you might wind up with five of the same kids at the end of the year,” McGhee said. The three kids who leave are more often than not replaced by three newcomers. The situation can be incredibly challenging for teachers trying to keep everyone up to speed with the curriculum.

Starting pay for a new teacher is just over $29,000 a year. That’s not a lot of money, McGhee said. Pryor has been offering $2,000 bonuses to non-tenured faculty, but the money came from a state program that is expiring.

McGhee said he would like to offer his teachers more pay, but school funding is pretty tight on reservations, where much of the property is owned by tribal government and tax exempt.

Schools receive Federal Impact Aid money to compensate for tax-exempt property. The money is similar to payments in lieu of taxes given to Montana counties with significant areas of tax-exempt federal land.

But federal budget cuts have reduced the amount of Impact Aid for schools by 10 percent, McGhee said. For school districts on Montana reservations, the cut means six-figure losses in funding and a much more difficult task of hiring teachers.

Ideally, the new teachers in the classroom would be American Indian.

In 2012, Montana State University and Little Big Horn College partnered to help American Indians receive master’s degrees in school administration. The goal is to boost achievement in underperforming schools.

Earlier in June, Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., introduced a bill to completely forgive student loans for American Indian teachers who were teaching in schools with a percentage of American Indian students.

The bill was proposed to Walsh by tribal leaders concerned about the need for more American Indian teachers. The loans would be forgiven up to $17,500, provided American Indian teachers were in schools with at least 10 Indian students or not less than 25 percent of the total number of individuals enrolled in the school.

Reservations targeted in consolidation program

By The Associated Press

These are the American Indian reservations the Department of Interior plans to focus on in the next phase of a $1.9 billion buyback program of fractionated land parcels to turn over to tribal governments. The program is part of a $3.4 billion settlement over mismanaged money held in trust by the U.S. government for individual Indian landowners.

— Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana.

— Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota.

— Coeur D’Alene Tribe of the Coeur D’Alene Reservation, Idaho.

— Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana.

— Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Oregon.

— Crow Tribe, Montana.

— Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana.

— Gila River Indian Community of the Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona.

— Lummi Tribe of the Lummi Reservation, Washington.

— Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation, Washington.

— Navajo Nation, Arizona.

— Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, Montana.

— Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

— Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas.

— Quapaw Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma.

— Quinault Tribe of the Quinault Reservation, Washington.

— Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

— Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, North Dakota and South Dakota.

— Squaxin Island Tribe of the Squaxin Island Reservation, Washington.

— Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and South Dakota.

— Swinomish Indians of the Swinomish Reservation, Washington.

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Source: U.S. Department of the Interior.