June 17, 2024
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By Isabella Breda

The Seattle Indian Health Board is planning to open the largest substance abuse disorder treatment facility in the state here amongst the dense woods and not too far from the seawater lapping on the shore, within 18 months.

At an event held for Vashon, the plans for the facility were revealed. The art displayed included some that represented the struggles Indigenous peoples have faced in obtaining adequate health care. For example, a plastic ribbon dress unzipped with toe tag hanging on the sleeves recalled the time when the federal government sent body bags to the Seattle Indian Health Board instead of protective gear during the Pandemic.

Early in 2020, the Health Board decided to sell its 65-bed original inpatient treatment facility in order to find a new space where it could house more patients and provide additional mental and medical health care. The facility will be available to all members of the community but Indigenous peoples are given priority.

Esther Lucero Dine, President and CEO of Seattle Indian Health Board, said: “When I consider the effects of addiction, traumas past and present on our people, this just motivates me to provide the most beautiful services, most advanced, and most cultural,” This property provides us with that.

In April the Health Board purchased a former residential care facility that abutted Shinglemill Creek Preserve. This ravine follows Shinglemill Creek until it empties into Fern Cove. Native Americans, such as ancestors from the Puyallup Tribe tended to this 13-mile island before the white settlers began farming, fishing and logging there.

Lucero explained that when people enter the building, the smell of Native art and traditional medicine will greet them.

The client will meet with an intake specialist at a desk made of natural wood. This person will ask about the clients’ clinical needs and their personal life. The clients will be able to wash their clothes and take a shower. Lucero imagines a similar experience to what celebrities can access for substance abuse treatment.

Thunderbird Treatment Center, a former inpatient center of the Health Board, was dedicated to treating substance abuse disorders among Indigenous people. Health Board officials claim that after 33 years at Rainier Beach the facility has the lowest rate of recidivism in the entire state.

Seattle’s treatment facilities for substance abuse were severely impacted by the closure. The center accounted for nearly 20 percent of Seattle’s state-licensed beds.

The fentanyl toll is rising on Washington’s Indigenous people. Abigail Echo Hawk, executive vice-president of the Health Board and enrolled member of Oklahoma’s Pawnee Nation, says that the region desperately needs treatment options tailored to the cultural preferences of American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

According to data from the Washington Department of Health, between 2018 and 2022, there were more than 200 deaths of American Indians and Alaska Natives in Washington State due to synthetic opioid overdoses. In Washington, the rate of deaths from synthetic opioids was highest among indigenous people.

In King County alone, Indigenous peoples will die of overdoses from synthetic drugs at a rate nine times higher than whites in 2022.

Echo-Hawk reported that there are many successful examples. One is the didgwalic Wellness Clinic of Swinomish Tribal Community near Anacortes. Swinomish officials claim that within the first year after the center opened, the number of opioid-related overdoses in tribal Swinomish members dropped by half.

Echo-Hawk stated that these programs are no longer able to satisfy the needs of the area. Access to care that is culturally sensitive is also crucial.

Lucero stated that the state agency will open the new 92 bed inpatient center in 18 months. It is expected to be the biggest in the entire state. She said that 15 beds would be set aside for women who are pregnant or have children.

According to plans by the Health Board, art and walls in the facility will feature calming tones ranging from moss to dirt. The entryway, check-in area and other areas will be decorated with accents made from woods indigenous to the region. In addition, the Health Board has been working on ensuring that there are soft lights throughout the entire facility.

The center on Vashon will offer a sunrise ritual, a drum circle, a language class, a sweat-lodge, and a drum circle to those in treatment. Health Board plans to construct a space for ceremonies with a skylight capturing the direction of sunlight. Lucero explained that they will be able Zoom into traditional healers all around the globe on screens.

The health board offers 45-day treatment that includes individual and group therapies, dental and medical care, and social support to parents who are working towards regaining custody or those seeking help with their resumes and job skills.

IndigiKnow is the model that this organization follows. The Health Board focuses on providing healthcare to Indigenous residents. It blends traditional medicine with modern treatment plans and culturally-attuned care.

Some Indigenous families are dealing with substance abuse issues since decades. This is a result of the systemic violence, cultural genocide, and land confiscation programs mandated by federal agencies.

Tom Warren, Choctaw and chair of the Health Board Board of Directors, has lost both his older brother, as well as two uncles, who were all in their fifties, to alcoholism. Warren says that this work is very personal.

Echo-Hawk said to the Vashon crowd, “We fight every thing.” We watch as our people are suffering and we do all we can to help them heal and be healthy. And we fight for the resources we need.

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