Methamphetamine use has become an epidemic in Indian country. In January 2004, the Navajo Department of Behavioral Health Sciences (DBHS) began to see an increased number of agencies reporting the use of methamphetamine on the Navajo Nation. The DBHS is the lead agency designated by the Navajo Nation Council to provide comprehensive alcohol and substance abuse prevention and education, treatment, and aftercare services to Navajo individuals and their families. The DBHS recognized that the Navajo Nation's large geographical area would be an obstacle to successful substance abuse prevention. Anticipating the outcomes of this new epidemic, the Navajo Nation took a proactive stance to educate and empower the Navajo people to work actively within their own communities to address methamphetamine addiction. They posed the question: How can we deliver vital information to the remote areas of the reservation?
The Navajo Nation DBHS director instructed the DBHS office to establish task forces consisting of representatives from educational institutions, law enforcement, social services, public health workers, the Indian Health Service, the Navajo Housing Authority, and all other interested entities. These groups-the Methamphetamine Community Task Forces-represent coalitions of community members, service workers, and government entities working together to address the critical needs arising from the spread of methamphetamine use. The Navajo Nation was among the first Indian Nations to make policy changes in the areas of prevention, treatment, and enforcement, to develop culturally appropriate strategies for stopping substance abuse.
The Methamphetamine Community Task Forces have implemented various projects to spread awareness of the dangers of methamphetamines. These initiatives include holding expert forums and group discussions; distributing printed brochures, newsprint ads, and posters about meth addiction; broadcasting radio public service announcements and making films in the Navajo language about the epidemic; and lobbying for legislative policy changes. The usage, possession, distribution, or manufacturing of methamphetamines were not listed as an illegal activity under existing Navajo Tribal Law when the Task Forces were first formed in 2004. As a result, each Meth Task Force established the support to add methamphetamines to the list of illegal substances so that Navajo Law Enforcement (and not the local FBI) could gain jurisdiction over reports of criminal meth-related activities. In response to this activism, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. recognized methamphetamine as an illegal substance on the Navajo Nation on February 16, 2005.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Meth Task Force's community-based activism is the development of culturally sensitive strategies for dealing with methamphetamines on the Navajo Nation. Eighty-two percent of Navajo people report the primary language spoken at home to be Navajo. Explaining meth to traditional Navajos must include visual examples and illustrations presented in the Navajo language. The very concept of methamphetamine abuse has no definition within the traditional paradigm; therefore, prevention strategies must be sensitive to traditional perspectives to educate future generations on the dangers of this powerful drug.
In addition, there are some Navajo clients who perceive treatment services as punishments (citing a jail atmosphere) taken against them, and become disengaged from treatments that do not incorporate Navajo teachings and healing ceremonies. Language barriers between clients and clinicians can also be obstacles to treatment. Another concern is that some treatment centers will not allow clients to bring religious paraphernalia such as corn pollen, sweet grass, and other items with them to treatment.
It is imperative to develop and advocate for culturally relevant behavioral health services for Navajo methamphetamine addicts. It is also imperative to identify whether such cultural differences may exist for the client. To this end, the Navajo DBHS has obtained funding to renovate the former Shiprock Indian Health Services hospital into a 72-bed Navajo Regional Residential Treatment Center, which will operate as a level III.5 American Society of Addiction Medicine treatment facility. This is a critical opportunity to close serious gaps in treatment capacity to reduce the associated health, economic, and social costs related to methamphetamine, alcohol, and substance abuse addiction.