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Tuesday
Sep302014

Chief Pego declares war on substance abuse on Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation


Photo courtesy of Marcella Hadden

By Holly Mahaffey

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Chief Steve Pego of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe declared war on substance abuse to an at-capacity audience at the Celebration of Healing, Recovery and Hope event last week at the Eagle’s Nest Tribal Gym on the reservation.

In a historic move, Steve Pego signed a birch bark document of community standards declaring war, something he said the tribe hasn’t done since 1763, during the Wednesday, Sept. 24 community meeting. 

Steve Pego said troubling increases in car and home break-ins on the reservation in combination with a rise in heroin abuse led to tribal leaders meeting to discuss how to come together as a tribe to fight substance abuse.

What came out of meeting was the Celebration of Healing event, which Pego said will be the first of many different front to combat drugs for its members.

During the event, the Tribal Observer reports Steve Pego as saying “Our community stood together as warriors ready to fight the good fight of stopping the pain that drugs and alcohol cause on the reservation for too many years.” 

The event brought together law enforcement members from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police Department, the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department, Michigan State Police and Central Michigan University Police in a further show of unity in fighting substance abuse together.  

Steve Pego said he was moved by a warrior ceremony at the event that included local law enforcement taking part in ceremonial and symbolic showings of unity and protection. 

“It was nice to see they got it,” said Frank Coultier, Public Relations Director for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe. “When it comes down to it, we are very good at taking care of each other – we just have to remember that.” 

A DECLARATION OF WAR

“I’m affected by it with my son,” said Steve Pego. “It’s time for all of us to stand together to fight this disease.” 

Steve Pego said his brother Robert Pego was instrumental in organizing the first community event to address the problem, and will solicit idea from the community on future meetings and projects, as well as continue strategic meetings.  

“We always come together as a small community,” said Steve Pego. “It’s mostly for the love of our children – we don’t want any more deaths.”

“We want a healthy tribe and we want a healthy future for our grandchildren,” Steve Pego said. “I’m proud sitting as a chief to sign that declaration.”

“One of the things we have is the support of our grandmothers,” said Robert Pego. He said the Indian Child Welfare Committee at the reservation happens to be comprised entirely of grandmothers who “pretty much see it firsthand – they see it, and see it as a problem.” 

HEROIN USE ON THE RISE

Law enforcement and communities working together are a theme of the message the Tribe is trying to convey, as rising heroin and opiate use is not just a problem on the reservation.

The AP reports that heroin overdose deaths in Michigan increased from 271 from the four-year period of 1999-2002 to 728 from 2010-2012, and that admissions to publicly funded programs for heroin treatment nearly doubled from 7,300 in 2000 to about 13,600 in 2013.

The Morning Sun has reported on escalating heroin-related deaths and crimes in Gratiot County over the past year, indicating that the tribe is not alone in facing drug abuse issues in mid-Michigan  

The Detroit Free Press reported in April 2014 that heroin is a “significant” public health problem in Michigan, according to Angela Minicuci, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Health. According to the department, heroin abuse can result in fatal overdoses, infections of the heart lining and valves, liver and kidney disease and pulmonary issues related to pneumonia. Those who inject heroin are at high risk for contracting HIV and hepatitis C, Michigan health officials said.

HEALTHY TREES, SICK FORESTS

Steve Pego referred to a quote from White Bison, an American Indian non-profit charitable organization that offers healing resources to Native Americans. 

In “The Wellbriety Journey: Nine Talks by Don Coyhis,” Stevo Pego likened this passage to the struggle his community is facing healing members suffering from substance abuse:

“Imagine it as a dysfunctional forest, like a sick community. The elders often use nature to explain things. They say if you take one of those sick trees out of the forest and take it down the road to a nursery and nurse the tree until it is well, and if you then bring that healthy tree back to the sick forest, then what will happen to that well tree? It will get sick again. In fact, if you are a well tree in a sick forest, the sick trees will try to convince you, the well tree, that you are the sick one. You will appear to be the outsider,” reads the passage. 

The passage from The Wellbriety Journey continues as saying: “Let’s take the idea of a sick forest and relate it to Native communities. If you describe the sickness a little deeper you’ll see that some of those trees are alcoholic trees, and some trees are married to them. There will also be codependent trees, sexual abuser trees, those who are abused, the abusee trees, and all the other dysfunctional behaviors we see today. If that’s the way our forests look, the elders have said you really need to look underground or in the “unseen world” in order to find solutions.”

“So that’s the thing here,” said Steve Pego. “We have to heal the forest.”

A GRATIFYING UNITY

Robert Pego said seeing the different religions practiced by tribal members coming together has given a “spirit of unity” to the Tribe’s declaration of war on substance abuse.  

“It’s a page from the history from our brothers,” Robert Pego said. “We can’t fight the battle alone.”

Stemming from the meeting has been more instances of “tattletelling,” which is what tribal leaders want to see happen more frequently in the community when someone notices a problem with a fellow tribal member. 

“It’s a gratifying sense of unity. Since the meeting a lot of people have been reporting incidents,” said Steve Pego. He also said that “Facebook has changed everything” as far as tribal community members becoming more vocal about crime and substance abuse in threads on the social media site. 

Neighborhood Watch programs, in place again for the first time as long as tribal leaders can remember, are one of the starting points the tribe is getting in place to help community members look out for each other. 

Accountability is another goal of the tribe. “We are working on resources to aid and assist,” said Cloutier. “Anything we do now is more aggressive (than in the past).

“People will be held accountable,” Cloutier said. “There are not a lot willing to be held accountable.”

Cloutier spoke of a young tribal member who said the first time she smoked marijuana was with her cousins, and that friends and family have to be aware of the implications of exposing community members to drugs and alcohol.

“It’s easy to teach, and easy to corrupt,” Cloutier said. “We have to make sure we know the difference.”

“We can lick this problem,” said Steve Pego. “We can slowly heal the reservation.”

 Originally published online and in print in the Morning Sun, a Mount Pleasant, Mich. daily newspaper.