Painkiller Problems On The Reservation


Four South Dakota Native American Tribes and dozens of others from across the nation are suing the pharmaceutical companies and distributors of opioid pain killers.

Native American Tribes say they’ve been disproportionately hit by the opioid epidemic. While drug overdose deaths rose by 200 percent for all Americans between 1999 and 2015, for Native Americans, the death rate rose by 500 percent.


For years, a sneaky problem has quietly ravaged the Rosebud Sioux and other Native American peoples in South Dakota. While alcohol and meth addiction are typically at the center of many social issues here, the opioid epidemic has mostly gone unnoticed. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken place.

“Indian Health Care Services prescribed me pain-pills to help me deal with my headaches,” Tamara Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

Tamara Stands And Looks Back–Spotted Tail never imagined she’d find herself addicted to opioids. But after a bad car crash in 2008, she was in chronic pain.

“The more I went in to address the pain I was dealing with, the more prescriptions they kept giving me. At that time I think I was taking at least five or six,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

After a while, she realized that the pills, not the pain, were causing an even bigger problem.

“And I had gone through a two-month withdrawal and it was one of the most horrible experiences I had ever experienced and I was able to go back and they gave me my prescription back. And it was at that time I realized that something was wrong here,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

Finally, Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail was able to see an orthopedic surgeon outside of Indian Health Services.

“I said, ‘I can’t stand being on these pain pills. I just can’t.’ It was destroying my life,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

The doctor diagnosed her with bulging discs and a pinched nerve and began addressing the underlying problem of her pain. She also began exercising and lost weight.

Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail: At that point it was just Tylenol and Motrin.
Angela Kennecke: Tylenol and Motrin?
Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail: Yes. 
Kennecke: After all that?
Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail: After all that.

Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail says when Indian Health Services began limiting the number of opioid prescriptions to patients, it hit the reservation hard.

“There was a big influx of deaths going on in our community,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

Her aunt was one of them.

“They weren’t really able to address the underlying issue of her health. And so when they cut her off, her body reacted to it and she ended up dying,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

“Addiction is addiction is addiction,” addiction counselor Ed Parsells said.

Parsells has been working in the addiction field on South Dakota’s Indian Reservations for decades. He says while meth fuels more crimes, they’re preparing to treat more people addicted to opioids.

“We’re calling it an emerging problem. It has been here for decades and decades–typically somebody going to the doctor for pain management are going to be prescribed opioids and that is going to turn into dependence, which may turn into addiction,” Parsells said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 10 Native American teens has used prescription opioids recreationally; that’s twice the rate of non-native youth.

“The thing about pain pills is they see grandma with a prescription and she’s got pain pills in her medicine cabinet and the grandchild has heard they can get high on that so they experiment with that,” Parsells said.

And experimentation can lead to street drugs.

“I know some people, they got addicted to heroin in Pierre.  And they’re from here and they’re back and forth so it’s just a matter of time before the heroin follows the pain pill addiction,” Parsells said.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is receiving $600,000 in federal grants to address the emerging opioid problem. The tribe is adding an additional eight beds to its current treatment center to deal with opioid addiction. 

“Typically the tail is wagging the dog, especially in the field of substance abuse, but now we are going to be ahead of the curve,” Parsells said.

“I think it’s affected our culture; I think it’s affected our health. I think it’s affected who we are as a people. I think it’s had an enormous impact on us being able to heal the way that we need to heal: naturally, spiritually, physically, emotionally,” Stands and Looks Back–Spotted Tail said.

Expanding this meth treatment center to include opioid dependency is one way for the people of Rosebud Sioux Reservation to take their own healing back. 

The Rosebud Treatment Center will rely heavily upon physicians who use medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. It’s one of the few methods shown to be effective.

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