At the height of the opioid epidemic, Native Americans overdosed and died at a rate that rivaled some of the hardest-hit regions in Appalachia. Nationwide, from 2006 to 2014, Native Americans were nearly 50 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-natives, the Washington Post reports. In recent months, the novel coronavirus has added to the trials of Indian Country, long plagued by health disparities, poverty, housing shortages and isolation. Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe and the Navajo Nation, with land stretching over three Western states, have struggled with some of the nation’s highest per capita infection rates.
Tribal leaders have not lost sight of the ongoing devastation caused by prescription opioids. As more than 3,000 cities and counties, and most states, pursue billions in settlement dollars from opioid manufacturers and distributors, tribal leaders are fighting for a fair share of the proceeds through a series of lawsuits. Several tribes that have sued are in Oklahoma, home to more than 482,000 Native Americans in 38 federally recognized tribes, including the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. The opioid death rate for Native Americans from 2006 to 2014 was more than three times higher than the nationwide rate for non-natives. Opioid distributors shipped an average of 57 pills per person per year to Oklahoma from 2006 to 2014. That’s far higher than the national average of 36 and just under the number of pills shipped to states in the opioid belt in and around Appalachia. At least 370 Native Americans in Oklahoma overdosed and died. Experts say the number of deaths for Native Americans is likely to be far higher because they are often mistakenly classified as white on death certificates.