How Milwaukee’s Native American community is fighting a surge in opioid deaths
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How Milwaukee’s Native American community is fighting a surge in opioid deaths

Sisters Alyssa Cook and Lena lost their mother in September 2023 to an opioid overdose.

“My mom was brilliant and had solutions for everything,” Lena said. “But she struggled with addiction most of her life.”

Lena, who wished to remain anonymous because she works in healthcare, wondered about the lack of options available to her mother and how much time and money her rehabilitation would take.

“Who was going to pay the rent if she didn’t work? Who was going to take care of the kids?” she asked.

The sisters are not alone. Local health care advocates are warning of a growing opioid crisis that is disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities in Milwaukee and across the state.

The Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, located at 930 W. Historic Mitchell St., is intended to serve as a beacon for those struggling with addiction in Milwaukee.

The center offers culturally sensitive treatment programs that combine modern medicine with traditional indigenous healing practices – a lifeline for people struggling with addiction.

Research shows that for many Milwaukee Native Americans, addiction is closely linked to historical trauma, systemic issues and deep personal pain.

Cook and her sister experienced grief at a young age because substance abuse was common in their family and Native American communities.

Cook is from the Red Lake Tribe of the Ojibwa and Lena is from the White Earth Tribe of the Ojibwa.

In 2021, Native Americans reported 56.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2021, the overdose death rate among Wisconsin’s Native Americans was even higher at 80.4 per 100,000 people, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health.

“Here in Milwaukee, the Indigenous population has the highest overdose rate of any other population. It’s an epidemic,” said Lyle Ignace, a physician who is CEO of the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center.

“There is a strong spiritual, emotional and mental element to the daily struggles of our community,” he said.

According to Milwaukee County overdose data, Native Americans had the highest rate of fatal overdoses in 2022. At 295 per 100,000 people, it was more than twice the rate of the next largest group: Black Milwaukeeans.

Shortly before Cook and Lena’s mother died, their younger brother Jerell died of an opioid overdose. And one of their youngest cousins ​​died of a fentanyl overdose two years ago.

“We are missing the things we need to live better,” Lena said.

She said generational trauma had destroyed her family and identity.

“We were all so disconnected,” Cook said. “It can feel so lonely.”

Forced separation from parents and family has disproportionately affected Native American families for decades, with many children sent to boarding schools and white homes where they were forced to adapt to white American culture, as documented by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

Cook said she, Lena’s grandparents and most of their siblings were placed for adoption by social services agencies and only came into contact with them as adults.

Lena believes that despite all her efforts, these practices prevented her mother from quitting her drug addiction.

The Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center hopes to change the narrative of stigma and isolation within Milwaukee’s Indigenous community.

The center uses traditional healing methods such as powwows, drum circles and sweat lodges.

How Milwaukee’s Native American community is fighting a surge in opioid deaths
Community members attend ceremony honoring opioid overdose victims in April at Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, 930 W. Historic Mitchell St.

For example, in April, the health center held a vigil to honor the memory of people who died from opioid overdoses.

“Community-based care is incredibly important,” said Ellicia Wilder, a counselor at the health center.

Research indicates that cultural identity and spirituality play a key role in Native Americans seeking help for substance abuse.

Wilder believes events like a recent vigil at a center for people grieving opioid addiction can open the way for people to talk openly about addiction while also allowing them to take part in traditional ceremonies.

Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center offers a wide range of services, from behavioral health care and outpatient therapy to the Keepers of Tradition cultural program.

“We’re here to make a connection,” Ignace said. “We want to help people heal, not just by talking about drug use, but in a way that connects them to their culture.”

  • First Step Community Rebuilding Center: 2835 N. 32nd St., (414) 930-4529
  • Gateway to Change: 2319 W. Capitol Drive, (414) 442-2033
  • 10th Street Comprehensive Treatment Center: 4800 S. 10th St., (855) 801-3867
  • Rogers Behavioral Health: (414) 865-2500
  • Community access to recovery services, or CARS: 1220 W. Vilet St., (414) 289-6085
  • Meta House: 2625 N. Weil St., (414) 962-1200
  • Community Health Services, 2814 S. 108th St., (414) 885-3525
  • United Community Center, 1028 S. 9th St., (414) 384-3100

Visit the Milwaukee resource page to find more Milwaukee drug and alcohol treatment centers that offer free treatment and detox.