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Embracing Change: Using Native Ways of Knowing to Combat the Opioid Crisis

By Meg Schneider, TOR Program Coordinator, National American Indian & Alaska Native ATTC 

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2022 showed a 39 percent increase in drug overdose deaths for Native people from 2019 to 2020. Only Black people had a higher increase (44 percent). Drug overdose deaths hit a record in 2021, with almost 108,000 deaths recorded. In late 2021, the CDC also reported that, although the overall suicide rate in the U.S. declined during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide deaths for young adult males and people of color increased – possibly (at least in part) because people of color were more likely to lose their jobs and have poorer access to both primary and mental health services.

Overdose Deaths Involving Opioids Among American Indians and Alaska Natives, U.S. 2010-2020


In late 2018, the National American Indian and Alaska Native Addiction Technology Transfer Center (AI/AN ATTC) received additional funding from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to provide technical assistance for its Tribal Opioid Response (TOR) program. TOR grantees are tribal entities serving their own communities; consortia serving several tribal populations in their geographic area; and Urban Indian Organizations (UIOs) serving Native people who live away from their tribal homelands. The TOR program recognizes that AI/AN communities are disproportionately affected by Opioid Use Disorders (OUDs), drug overdose deaths, and barriers to treatment and recovery services. d It strives to assist grantees in developing and implementing culturally appropriate strategies for addressing these issues.

One of our primary goals with our TOR involvement was to leverage the knowledge, experiences, and expertise of Native communities so we could facilitate workforce development and innovations among the grantees. In 2019, we began hosting regional meetings so grantees could gather in person to share with and learn from each other.

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed virtually all traditionally Native avenues for sharing, learning, and supporting each other. In-person gatherings for ceremonies and socializing suddenly posed unprecedented dangers for AI/AN communities, which – as with OUDs and overdose deaths – suffered disproportionate infection and mortality rates from COVID-19.

Like everyone else, we were taken off guard by the suddenness and severity of the pandemic and had to pivot quickly to continue supporting TOR grantees. 

From early 2020, all our TOR events were virtual, and we added a monthly Care & Share session to help grantees connect, share ideas, and support each other as they face their own challenges with the pandemic — which, in many cases, worsened the opioid crisis and sparked higher incidences of suicide and mental health issues.

From the beginning, we felt that virtual events were a poor (but necessary) substitute for in-person gatherings. But we learned that online trainings and meetings also had unintended benefits. Grantees did not have to budget time or money for travel; they were able to connect with other grantees outside their own geographic areas; links to additional resources were immediately available via the chat box.

Just as important, we witnessed the incredible strength, resilience, and creativity of Native communities in addressing OUDs. We highlighted some examples in our award-winning publication, TOR Grantee Success Stories: Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Innovations in Native American Communities. We are compiling a second volume to be published in the coming weeks to celebrate more of the successes grantees have seen in their programs by incorporating their culture and traditions. We also developed the TOR Resource Guide as a token of our appreciation for the critical services these grantees provide for their communities.

Our role as a technical assistance center for TOR grantees ended in September with the expiration of our supplemental funding. However, we are continuing and expanding the Care & Share monthly sessions under the National AI/AN ATTC. These 90-minute sessions take place on the third Wednesday of the month and are guided discussions for participants to offer peer-to-peer support and share their expertise and unique tribal and community practices. Care & Share is now open to all professionals working in addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery in Native communities.

It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of the TOR grantees’ journey, and we look forward to continuing and strengthening the relationships forged in our common purpose.

About the author:

Meg Schneider is the communications manager for the Native Center for Behavioral Health at the University of Iowa and served as coordinator for the TOR Technical Assistance program during 2022. She has 25 years’ experience in a variety of communications and training functions, including more than a decade working with American Indian communities in the Eastern U.S.

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The opinions expressed herein are the views of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), SAMHSA, CSAT or the ATTC Network. No official support or endorsement of DHHS, SAMHSA, or CSAT for the opinions of authors presented in this e-publication is intended or should be inferred.