Joe Sayerwinnie can still recall vividly the first time he tried methamphetamine.
Just 14 at the time and already a regular consumer of alcohol, cocaine and a variety of pills, Sayerwinnie says he was turning to whatever drug he could get his hands on.
Riding around Oklahoma City with two friends in search of the next chance to party, Sayerwinnine, a member of the Comanche Nation, was handed a pipe of meth to smoke.
“My buddy was like, ‘smoke some of this and you’ll be alright. You’ll be able to keep going and keep partying.’ I remember when I smoked it, man, I liked it a lot. The high was just, it was great,” Sayerwinnie said, comparing the high he felt to the energy buzz people get from drinking a five-hour energy drink. “I started smoking it and I started using it more often.”
Over time, Sayerwinnie started stealing to fund his habit, including stealing from his mom. “I was so bad. I didn’t care about nothing and nobody but myself and where I was going to get my next high,” he said.
Across the country, methamphetamine use has been ravaging tribal communities and their members. A 2006 report from the National Congress of American Indians found that Native Americans have the highest rates of meth abuse, with 1.7 percent of American Indians or Alaska Native respondents reporting they had used meth in the past year. Among Native Hawaiians surveyed, 2.2 percent said they had used the drug in the past year. This compares with 0.7 percent for Caucasians, 0.5 percent of Hispanics, 0.2 percent for Asians and 0.1 percent for African-Americans.
Methamphetamine use in rural communities can be especially devastating. The NCAI report says use on reservations and in rural Native communities can be as high as 30 percent.
The Concho, Oklahoma-based Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes is the latest Native community to try to combat the drug’s detrimental effects among its tribal members.
The tribe created a public awareness campaign called Not On Our Land to draw attention to the abuse and offer resources for people needing him.
“The crippling drug has affected so many of our people that we must no longer stand idly by and allow this travesty to go,” Cheyenne and Arapahoe Gov. Eddie Hamilton said in a statement on a newly created website about the campaign, NotOnOurLand.com. “Meth abuse is becoming more prevalent each day as it destroys the lives of our families and loved ones.”
The campaign aims to educate the public about meth, which is also known as speed, tweak, crystal, crank and ice; its effect on communities and offer information for those addicted.
The drug not only ravages the person taking it – causing paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of parasites under the skins, heart attacks, stroke and even death – but it also affects everyone around it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has found that 74 percent of tribal police rank meth as the greatest drug threat to their communities. The drug is often a precursor to violence, with 40 percent of crime in Native land attributed to its use. Sixty-four percent of tribal police say domestic violence and assault has increased as a result.
“Crime increases as users seek quick cash to feed their addiction,” said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. “Families suffer as meth takes over a person’s life, which can lead to violence and stress in the home.”
Small children living in the home of a meth addict are especially vulnerable, Woodward said, because there is often little food, water or supervision because the parent is focused on meth rather than caring for the child. Approximately 72 percent of meth homes in Oklahoma have children under the age of 12 living inside homes with deplorable conditions, Woodward said.
He said the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe’s campaign is critical for both users and their families.
“Many meth addicts or family members don’t know where to turn for help and hope,” he added. “This campaign will provide awareness to programs for assistance, as well as education to help our youth understand the dangers and help them make decisions to stay away from meth or other forms of substance abuse.”
For Sayerwinnie, 31, several stints in prison for various offenses wasn’t even enough to scare him straight and convince him to get help. What did? His then-13-year-old daughter. One day, Sayerwinnie said, she had had enough of the drug abuse and its lifestyle. She started screaming and yelling at him, pleading for him to stop using drugs.
“Just the reaction of my daughter talking to me and yelling at me and telling me that, because she had never said anything to me before,” he said. “It took her to do what she did for me to really want to change. I could see the pain and the hurt. I could see it all in her.”
That was the moment Sayerwinnie decided to turn his life around. He headed to Lawton, the headquarters of the Comanche Nation, to seek help. The tribe sent him to a rehab facility, which he calls the “best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I met people just like me. Some of them were really good people who had made bad decisions,” he said.
Remaining sober is a challenge, but Sayerwinnie said he takes it one day at a time and uses the knowledge and skills he learned during rehab to cope. He’s also focused on helping other American Indians who may feel like they have no one who understands what they are going through.
“Our Native American children, our Native children, are our future,” he said. “If I walk into a room and we give it our all and tell our speech and put it out there, hopefully with the campaign and what I’m trying to do for them … I hope and pray that if I can get a handful, or even just one, to listen or not do it, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”