BISMARCK-All five of North Dakota's Native American tribes have joined more than 440 other tribal nations to detail how they've been harmed by the nation's opioid epidemic.
A legal brief recently filed in U.S. District Court in ongoing litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors includes support from 448 federally recognized tribes.
Tim Purdon, former U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota, called the court filing historic. Purdon now works for national law firm Robins Kaplan, which represents all five of North Dakota's tribal nations as well as tribes in other states.
"It's pretty clear, when you have 448 tribes step up and do this, tribes themselves certainly feel that the opioid epidemic has disproportionately impacted tribal communities," Purdon said.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Spirit Lake Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate have filed lawsuits against 24 opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging devastating public health effects. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has not filed a lawsuit, but Purdon said he anticipates the tribal nation will do so.
The lawsuits, along with cases from other tribes across the nation, are consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.
Lawsuits from two tribes, the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana, are proceeding in federal court as test cases.
Other tribal nations joined in a legal brief to provide more information to the court about the impact of the opioid crisis in Indian Country. The document cites a statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2015.
"The tribes' claims in this litigation are tragic and stunning," the court filing states. "By every measure, tribes and their populations have been more gravely impacted on a proportionate basis than any other segment of America."
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation wrote in a statement of interest filed in court that its behavioral health center had 37 opioid-related encounters in the previous 90 days, with 22 people being recommended for treatment. MHA recently opened the $25 million Good Road Recovery Center in Bismarck, a project the tribe said it funded to provide desperately needed treatment.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wrote that its 11 law enforcement officers and three addiction counselors are inadequate to address the opioid problem within the reservation's 3,500 square miles.
The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians wrote that the closest medication-assisted treatment is 40 miles away and the tribe would like a program within its community that integrates cultural values. Other needs include funding to buy Naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, and resources for education and training, the tribe wrote.
The Spirit Lake Tribe wrote that as opioid addictions rise in the community, the need for law enforcement to respond to crimes, including violence, has drastically increased.
The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate wrote that tribal law enforcement has seen a 548 percent increase in drug-related arrests since 2008.
The opioid industry defendants have filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits.