With the national opioid crisis leaving no community untouched, the Oneida Nation recently unveiled its Tribal Action Plan (TAP) to help combat the growing epidemic as well as other substance abuse issues. The 23-page TAP document contains information about the Tribal Coordinating Committee (TCC) tasked with implementation of the TAP, an Environmental Inventory to assess the nation’s needs, resources, and current services as they relate to alcohol and substance abuse activities, a Community Readiness Assessment as well as stated goals, objectives, and outcomes for the plan.
“The TAP initiative is a tribal-wide strategic plan to address alcohol and substance abuse in our community,” Priscilla Belisle, acting TAP Coordinator for the Oneida Nation, said. “Back in 2008 the Tribal Law and Order Act was signed by President Obama which mandated Indian Health Services (IHS), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) work collaboratively to help tribes, so this is a part of that initiative.”
A training seminar held in North Carolina in February brought all of these agencies together for the first time in an effort to expand TAP programs, which have already been instituted in other tribal communities across the United States. “The first thing we needed to do was create a tribal resolution to deal with this because had to have our leadership on board with what we were doing,” Belisle said. “Without their support we would have been stunted in how far we could go with this but the resolution passed with ease. So Mandy Schneider, Latsi Hill, and myself have really been able to move this forward over the past eight months.”
Several members of the Oneida Business Committee (OBC) are actively involved with the TAP initiative as members of the 26-person TCC. “Tehassi Hill, Brandon Stevens, Daniel Guzman, and Ernie Stevens are all part of the TCC,” Belisle said. “So a good chunk of our leadership is involved and they are all completely on board with this.”
Oneida Police Department (OPD) Community Resource Officer Latsi Hill has seen the impact of opioid abuse up close and personal in Oneida and has been heavily involved in getting TAP up and running. “A lot of people are labeling this situation with opiates as an epidemic and I agree,” Hill said. “As a frontline officer in the community I am willing to bet that every last name in our community has somebody in their family that is addicted. Many start off at a young age where they experiment with it in pill form by smoking them, crushing them up and snorting them, or chewing them to get rid of the time release in them.”
Once an opioid abuser becomes addicted, trying to quit is a challenging and often painful process. “In conducting interviews in our community I’m told they wouldn’t wish the withdrawals on their worst enemy,” Hill said. “Some have described it as the worst fever they’ve ever had times one hundred and there’s pain in your bones, your nails, and your teeth. Once somebody’s reached this point, and they can’t get any painkillers, they’ll move over to heroin because it’s cheap and they can stay high for twelve hours. And it snowballs from there because once they’ve developed a tolerance for these things they’re going to keep using and chasing that ultimate high that they experienced early on.”
This often leads an addict to commit crimes to obtain that high. “Families are getting torn apart,” Hill said. “It’s the same here in Oneida as in any other surrounding community. When somebody in the family is addicted that person starts pawning their own items because they can’t handle the withdrawals. But once they’re out of their own items pretty soon their family starts noticing things are missing. At first it may be hard to notice but after a while it becomes undeniable and they are getting caught in lies. Families may begin hearing from others that their loved one is addicted and they suddenly realize why all of this is happening.”
Once a family gets tired of being victimized, they may choose to kick the addict out of their home which can lead to a vicious cycle. “Another family member may take them in and try to help them,” Hill said. “But people don’t realize how strong that addiction is and they don’t understand that an addict is not thinking logically. That drug is literally controlling every single decision of their life every single day and soon that person could burn every single bridge with everybody that ever loved them.”
Compounding the opioid crisis is an even more deadly problem now being seen in Oneida as well as other surrounding communities. “Fentanyl and Carfentanyl are synthetic opiates that are manufactured by a chemist,” Hill said. “The main ingredient in both heroin and the prescription pills is the opiate poppy plant which is harvested and comes from overseas. However, the synthesized Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and Carfentanyl can be 1,000 times more potent so local drug dealers are mixing that stuff with heroin to make it stronger. The danger of that is these dealers aren’t chemists and don’t know how potent this stuff is and we’re seeing more overdoses as a result. Carfentanyl is manufactured to tranquilize elephants so one little grain of it can potentially kill a human being.”
Twenty-nine intensive community assessment interviews were conducted by the TCC across a wide-range of ages in Oneida to get a feel for community readiness regarding the local substance abuse crisis. “The levels of readiness go from one to nine with one being no awareness and two being denial and resistance,” Belisle said. “As a community we scored a two but that’s not to say our community is clueless, it just means that we have various levels of awareness of the situation. We don’t need a thousand participants to conduct the assessment, we just needed enough to establish a baseline of where we need to start to address this problem.”
“Scoring a two was a reality check for our community as well as for our tribal leadership,” Hill said. “So they’ve taken the initiative and made addressing this issue the highest priority for the nation. We (TCC) hope to get that score up to a four in the next year but I have higher hopes that we can reach a six which is where our community is ready to take action about it. I’ve begun to do more speaking at public events with large groups of people to let them know how serious this issue is.”
The TAP document is being referred to as a “living, breathing” document because as the Oneida Nation moves ahead with actions to deal with the drug crisis, certain situations will arise that will dictate different strategies used to combat it. “As we move forward with this the document will change,” Belisle said. “The TAP is not set in stone. One of our big drivers as far as our goals and objectives is the community readiness. That community readiness assessment tells us how ready our community is to take action on a particular issue.”
The Oneida community will soon be able to see everything the TCC is doing by looking at their Facebook page which they hope to have up and running in the near future. “Our communications team will hopefully have that page going in the next 30 days,” Belisle said. “Everything that the TAP team is doing will be communicated to the larger community via this venue because none of this information is confidential. Everything we are doing will be available for the community to see and talk about.”
For any questions regarding the TAP initiative feel free to contact Priscilla Belisle at (920) 496-7326.