Listening to youth voices on the addiction crisis in Northern California’s Hoopa Reservation

Published on
March 24, 2018

On a cold February morning in Hoopa Valley, California, first- and second-graders are at recess. Though the temperature is inching up from an overnight frost, some are in short sleeves. The school campus is a maze of temporary buildings and construction, so pathways and open spaces are protected by heavy metal fencing. In a spacious new playground, children are clamoring over and into a bright, six-foot high structure that has slides, cubbies, ladders and bars. Many of these children have parents, older siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, or neighbors who are addicted, if not to opioids, then heroin or methamphetamine. Some have neighbors who are dealers.

The 12-square-mile Hoopa Reservation in Northern California has been grappling with addiction for decades. The meth labs in the forests encircling the valley are fewer in number than the days when speed was the primary problem. But marijuana growers who defend their crops with guns make up the difference. This is Humboldt County, among the hardest hit by the nation’s opioid epidemic, where drug-related deaths are five times higher than the state average.

The Hoopa Community Coalition, organized by the Kimaw Medical Center’s Board of Directors, has been meeting for a year to come up with solutions to the crisis. And several initiatives are underway. The tribal medical center recently hired a pain specialist; and the center has already reduced prescription painkillers by 81,000 pills and instituted a policy setting time limits for opioid prescriptions. The center is looking at a potential class-action suit against pharmaceutical companies and at strategies for making physicians more accountable as well.

Illegal drugs are still easily available, however, primarily because policing on tribal lands is complicated. Hoopa does not have a jail. Tribal police can make arrests but incarcerations have to be handled through agreements with county police. The Humboldt County Sheriff attended February’s coalition meeting to explain his plan for working with the tribal police. His remarks did not go unchallenged. There is anger, cynicism, and despair over the fact that known drug dealers are alive and well on the reservation. Nevertheless, there was a reasoned discussion as to how the sheriff could make a difference.

Hoopa’s Native youth live in a dual reality of addiction-related pathologies and intense, sustained community efforts to heal a crisis deeply rooted in past and ongoing devastation. The tribal social service agencies and medical center, along with teachers, school administrators and youth groups, work on multiple fronts to support area residents impacted by addiction. It is certain that these efforts support young people. It is also certain that some youth remain vulnerable — youth who depend on adults afflicted with unemployment, historical trauma, domestic and other forms of violence, lack of quality food, and a consequent range of serious health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, PTSD, suicidal tendencies and impaired self-esteem.

The Youth and Truth on Addiction project aims to find out how Hoopa youth are navigating this dual reality. How much do they know about addiction in their community? What do they feel, think, believe and fear? Do they see a role for themselves in resolving the crisis, possibly by helping to prevent addiction in their peers? By recording junior and senior high school students who volunteer to discuss their perceptions, feelings, hopes and fears, the project hopes to add their voice to the efforts aimed at putting an end to the community’s addiction crisis, and healing the wounds of those afflicted by it. How today’s youth weather the crisis is key to ending it for future generations. Their voice will be listened to and supported. Community members have great empathy for their addicted loved ones, friends and neighbors, and have a profound commitment to restoring the tribal values that created the strong, resilient people who lived in Northern California before the invasion.

The goal of the project is to amplify the youth voice through two parallel phases of development. For the first phase, the objective is to engage youth volunteers in the creation of audio segments that record their perceptions of addiction. The second phase will focus on collaborating with these youth in a follow-up project that maintains an ongoing dialogue with tribal agency personnel and community members, in the belief that they can play a valuable role in preventing addiction in their peers and in generations to come. The project is committed to sustaining the youth voice and ensuring it exists in Hoopa’s larger context of empowering its youth.

Given the small size of the community and the possible risks posed to some by speaking out, it is essential that we guarantee confidentiality. The audio segments will, therefore, represent an anonymous collective voice acquired by recording participants. We’ll turn their discussions into text, and have the texts read by other volunteers. This will add more youth to the project and enable the publication of a text. To solicit student volunteers, we are working with school and agency staff already involved in addiction prevention in the schools.

[Photo by frankieleon via Flickr.]