By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk
A decade ago Ken Lewis almost lost his arm to an IV drug addiction.
Twice he developed cysts in his veins that exploded in the hospital. When he came out of surgery, the doctor prescribed painkillers. So he traded his methamphetamine and heroin for the prescribed opiates.
"I was at my wit’s end. I mean, I was mentally gone, dead," said the Akimel O'odham tribal member. "Spiritually, I didn’t believe in a god. Emotionally, didn’t feel, didn’t realize I was hurting people or hurting myself. Physically, I probably should’ve been dead."
Lewis, as a Native American, was part of what are some of the highest substance abuse rates in the U.S. Alcohol and methamphetamines are the drugs of choice, and heroin is becoming a big problem.
Lewis, addicted to opiates, was ordered by a judge into rehabilitation. He went to Native American Connections. Indian Rehab, as it is called, is an old two-story house in the middle of downtown Phoenix.
"The lady behind the desk came out and she gave me this big old hug," he said. "And inside I’m cussing her out. And she told me, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ And I was more mad because nobody told me that in a long time. I hadn’t heard those words. People gave up on me."
The recovery program combines western practices, including the 12 steps, with traditional indigenous healing ceremonies, including the sweat lodge. That, Lewis said, is what saved him.
"This is the type of forgiveness of self, of cleansing, of a rebirth," he said. "And so when you’re coming out, you’re feeling purified. You’re feeling worthy and that I can go into recovery. You’ve cleansed all those negative feelings and thoughts and decisions you made."
Lewis has been clean for eight years and now works for Native American Connections. Many aren’t so lucky. A person addicted to heroin usually winds up in jail or dead, and among Native americans, it's a special problem that combines addiction with poverty.
A recent FBI report shows the Mexican drug cartels are specifically targeting Indian Country because high unemployment on reservations means many turn to trafficking and dealing.
The cartels take advantage of the fact that the tribes lack law enforcement resources. The Navajo Nation, for example, has about 200 full-time officers patrolling a jurisdiction the size of West Virginia.
Navajo officer Donald Seimy said a recent report of a car accident pulled all four officers on duty to one remote location.
"And we show up and then there’s nothing," Seimy said. "I think they have that knowledge of us not being everywhere or the short manpower that we have, they know it. So they’re getting smart about it."
His theory was that the accident call was false and came from drug dealers trying to sell or traffic drugs elsewhere on the reservation.
The Navajo Nation, and many other tribes, just don’t have the law enforcement to keep the drugs out. That means more and more Native Americans are getting hooked.
At the Coconino County Jail on the edge of the Navajo Nation, half the inmates are Native American. So the sheriff invited Shannon Rivers to conduct sweat lodge ceremonies.
Inside the razor-wire fence, Rivers built a fire next to a rebar structure. When the fire heated a dozen or so stones, he covered the frame with blankets. He then poured water over the hot rocks inside the sweat lodge.
"My job here is to help these men down a path of sobriety," Rivers said. "How we do that is through these ceremonies, because what we know is a lot of the ways the western ways aren’t working.
Rivers, himself a former addict, said the reasons Native Americans have such high rates of incarceration and substance abuse are complex.
"For me, I still had that baggage that I grew up with as a Native person coming from a reservation," he said. "I struggled with my shortcomings, my insecurities, my anger, my jealousy. That baggage is tied to our history as native people."