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Meth Taking a Tough Toll on Indian Reservations

Leah Fyten believes every family on her South Dakota reservation has been affected by methamphetamine use. The drug has torn apart these families, led to increases in crime and bumped mortality rates. And now, the director of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Housing Authority says, it's affecting the reservation's already desperate housing situation.

Housing is not only ruined by meth labs, which are highly poisonous and often difficult to spot, but also by the destructive habits that often accompany drug use. The housing authority on the Flandreau reservation has spent countless dollars fixing up holes in the walls, broken windows, ruined appliances and other damage wrought by the violent habits of drug users, Fyten said.

"We have a small budget that decreases every year and families are growing," she said. "Housing gets worse every year. And to try to repair houses that are damaged by alcohol and drug abuse puts a strain on your budget."

Last year, Fyten's reservation recruited Jay Barton to help alleviate the problem. Barton, an Oklahoma police officer who also works for the National American Indian Housing Council, is traveling around the country teaching Indian housing officials what the drug does and how to spot it. Fyten and others say the council's seminars are breaking through in communities that have so far ignored and denied the problem, helping reservations lessen meth's collateral damage.

Barton likes to say he is shocking his students out of complacency.

"The response has been tremendous," he said. "Especially with the funding cuts that tribes have received, this is really important."

Barton teaches his students all about the drug — its effects, its origins, its market and its chemistry. He shows them pictures of users with their teeth rotting out and tells them about the drug's poisonous effect on children who come anywhere near it.

Statistics on Indian meth use are scarce, but an administration survey found in 2004 that almost 2 percent of the American Indian population was using meth. Robert McSwain, deputy director of the Indian Health Service, told a congressional panel earlier this month that the rate of Indians using meth appears to have dramatically increased in the past five years.

This poses a major problem for states and Indian reservations, Barton said, as some states have passed laws that essentially punish property owners for meth contamination. Some landlords — including Indian housing authorities — have been forced to pay for cleanup of meth labs, which can cost thousands of dollars.

In addition, few states have published standards for cleanup. Congress is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to develop federal guidelines, as there is still some confusion about the effects of chemicals involved in producing the drug.

Because it is often up to the reservations to pick up the work and also the tab, and because most of these reservations have dramatic housing shortages, Barton said there is a critical need for education about meth.

Indian housing has been a problem for decades. According to a 2003 survey, an estimated 200,000 housing units are needed immediately in Indian country and approximately 90,000 Indian families are homeless or "under-housed."

"If we can make them aware of the costs and also the people that are abusing meth, then hopefully we can cut down on the costs," Barton said.

His seminars have led to at least one drug bust in Juneau, Alaska, where a maintenance worker who had attended a seminar identified a meth lab in his hotel.

Ron Peltier, director of the Turtle Mountain Housing Authority in North Dakota, said he hopes Barton, who gave a seminar there in early May, will be able to similarly help his reservation.

"We have a lot of workers who are unaware of how meth labs look, and we have a feeling that some of our units are being used," Peltier said. "We hear a lot of rumors. But when we go there, we don't know what to look for."

Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, says training people to spot the drug is paramount because meth is "cutting into the kinship we have as Navajo people."

"If you can't catch them there's no way to treat them," he said.

Despite their success, federal cuts to Indian programs have threatened Barton's seminars. He conducted about 50 last year, but he said fewer are scheduled in 2006 because of less federal money allocated for the National American Indian Housing Council, a quasi-government organization. After that, Barton said, organizers will have to come up with some sort of alternative.

The meth problem in Indian country has shown few signs of slowing, however. At the congressional hearing earlier this year, McSwain said the situation could be described in a single word: "crisis."

"I think what we are seeing now is that if communities don't take action it's going to get a whole lot worse," said Fyten. "It's very sad and it's very scary. People have to wake up. There's a lot of people that don't understand meth and how to detect it."