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Substance Abuse in North Dakotan Tribal Lands

Native American reservations are hit especially hard by substance abuse and substance distribution. This is because Mexican criminal groups often use Native American reservations as a ‘home base’. Residents of the reservation are then employed by the criminal group to distribute drugs within and outside of the reservation. Users also sometimes come to the reservations to make purchases. Furthermore, the remote location of reservations also provides the potential for illicit drug production.

The introduction of drugs to Native American communities has been destructive to families, individuals, and the community as a whole. Children have methamphetamine addictions before they can even speak, elementary-aged children have tried tobacco and other inhalants, people turn to selling drugs as a way to make an income, to support their addiction people turn to crime, plus a multitude of other problems have arisen. To add, all of this has been unfolding with limited resources to stop these issues.

The History of Tribal Land Substance Abuse in North Dakota

Reservation residents are a vulnerable group. There are many factors that have contributed to the unfortunate increase of tribal land substance abuse on reservations. First, the unemployment rate on Native American reservations averages about 55%. This high rate of unemployment makes participating in illegal activities all the more enticing. On top of that, over 40% of Native Americans who live on reservations in North Dakota are in poverty. The lack of employment and need for money leave many residents in a tough spot. In these situations, working for criminal groups can appear to be the only option for some people.

Letting drug traffickers use reservations as refuge, of course, introduces drugs into the community. No one is immune to drug addiction. Adults and youth alike can develop a substance dependency. There are even children born with methamphetamine addictions just because their parents had been users.

Underlying Issues

Unlike in highly populated cities, getting help on these reservations is not a simple task. Reservations are understaffed, underfunded, and isolated. For example, there is only once adolescent addiction counselor in the entirety of the Spirit Lake Nation. Furthermore, only a portion of gaming proceeds is spread out to address substance addiction issues, overall welfare, AND infrastructure demands. This lack of resources makes it difficult for those on reservations to receive treatment and break their addiction.

How Substance Abuse Affects Reservations

Substance abuse impacts more than just a person’s physical health. It often has repercussions on an abuser’s relationships with family, friends, and work. Dysfunctional families are a big reason why people turn to drugs and alcohol. Dysfunctional families also add to the stress of those who are trying to recover from addiction. It is recommended that those who have familial issues seek help away from home, that way they can receive treatment in peace. But, that is likely difficult for many people living on reservations. As mentioned, over half of the people who live on Native American reservations are unemployed. In turn, this leaves addicts left to try to break their addictions with the scarce help available or on their own.

Impact On Youth

Smoking and experimentation with inhalants start as early as elementary
school on North Dakotan reservations. Tobacco is usually the gateway drug for these children. It was formerly used for religion and medicine in Native American communities, but has lost its meaning for many and is now used just like any other substance. Native Americans smoke more cigarettes than any other racial/ethnic groups in the United States. The lack of early prevention programs and positive adult role models does not help this issue.

Many adults on the reservations get involved with methamphetamine. The number of people on the reservation who have used methamphetamine at least once in their life is higher than the state average. Because of adult usage, some children are born with methamphetamine addictions. Can you imagine having an addiction to something that you don’t even know exists? To add, the number of people who have used methamphetamine before the age of 13 on the reservation is also higher than the national average.


Drugs don’t show up in a community out of the blue. People bring them into a community. Usually, criminal groups bring them into the community. In North Dakota, gangs from Mexico, Canada, and neighboring states come in to distribute their supply. Along with illicit drugs, they also bring in other factors that come with gang activity, like gun violence, for example. There has been an increase in gun violence and street gang related activity because of the gang presence. In 2017, the death by firearm rate and drug over dose rate was the highest it had been in the previous 3 years.

In addition to the violence that gangs bring to communities, abusers often engage in other criminal activities as well. These crimes are usually committed to help abusers support their addiction. Common crimes among abusers are theft, property crime, and sexual abuse.

All of these factors make for a toxic community. Until adequate funding and resources are available for reservation residents, the substance abuse will be endemic in these communities and the cycle will continue.

Don’t Let Substance Abuse Stop You

North Dakotan Native American reservations face unique challenges when it comes to tribal land substance abuse. Not only is substance abuse itself an issue on these reservations, but there are other underlying issues that make putting a halt to substance abuse particularly challenging in these areas. The remoteness of reservations makes them a spot for gangs to seek refuge. In addition, the high rate of poverty and unemployment make reservation residents prime candidates to be employed by gangs to sell their drugs on and off the reservations. For those who get pulled into a life associated with drugs and gangs on reservations, seeking help is very difficult. North Dakotan reservations are severely underfunded and understaffed. To get quality help, addicts will probably have to travel off the remote reservation. Furthermore, for long-term recovery, addicts might not be able to return to the reservation because of the toxic environment.

Of course, every person and every situation is different. If you or a loved one have been struggling with breaking addiction, you have come to the right place. No matter what your circumstances are, there is always hope, and we are here to help. Call us at 701-380-5836 to speak with a representative today!