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Baltimore Native Americans fighting back the opioid epidemic

Posted at 11:27 PM, Mar 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-08 07:59:12-05

BALTIMORE, Md. — When you hear the beating drums and listen to the traditional songs you know it is a Native American celebration.

Families from the Lumbee Tribe live and breath among us in Baltimore. You’ll see their presence on the east side of the city and in Dundalk in Baltimore County. Their numbers are few about 2,500 and sadly they’re shrinking.

“We're a community that is really hidden, people will still ask if we live in teepees, things like that. They don't think of Native people in a contemporary context,” said activist Kerry Hawk Lessard.

Hawk Lessard works with Native American Lifelines. It’s an outreach group connecting the urban Indian community with programs for things like mental health issues and counseling for substance abuse. From the numbers, it’s clear this small community is not immune from the opioid epidemic.

“We lost two native people within the first week of November to opioid overdoses. In December, there were four opioid overdoses, two of them were fatalities,” said Hawk Lessard.

“It could have happened at my house,” said Rose Locklear.

Locklear’s youngest sister Ruth was one of them. She overdosed December 15 in her apartment.

“I said why would she do that, when she knew that it killed our sister,” said Locklear.

Two of Rose’s sisters overdoes on heroin, before Ruth, it was Wilma in 2013. She got clean during a six-year stint in jail, but it wouldn’t last.

“She was finally going to be home for Christmas. She got out in July. She died on September 28,” said Locklear.

Looking through family photos, sharing memories of happier times, Rose knows the pain and loss. She too is a recovering addict, but she says fentanyl has changed the game.

“When I was using I never heard of no fentanyl. It wasn't even on the streets, to be honest with you, I probably would have been one of the ones that died because I was using and I would do whatever. I didn't care just to get high,” explained Locklear.

She started with alcohol when she was just a teenager, but Hawk Lessard says the old stereotype of Indians and alcohol has evolved and not for the better.

“I think here in Baltimore since we're an epi-center for injection drug use it was real easy for folks to access others kinds of street drugs verses just alcohol so we saw a whole lot of that,“ said Hawk Lessard.

Now four years sober and clean, Rose has not only buried two sisters, but also three cousins all from drug overdoses.

“If you've never been on a highway of drug addiction you can't judge anybody,” said Locklear.

Hawk Lessard worries it’s not only families like Roses’ that will suffer, but ultimately their entire race.

“Our languages that are so in jeopardy those cultural practices, our stories and history those are gonna die and once they're gone, they're gone,” said Hawk Lessard. “Now it's just oh our Auntie over dosed and died, that just shouldn't be normal, that's not normal. As a people we've overcome too much to let that be how our story is written.”

And Locklear doesn’t want anyone's story to end up like hers.

“I'm just grateful that I'm here and I'm alive and I want everybody to hear this, please if you've got anyone out there that's using your friends, your mother, father, sister please be supportive of them. Help them talk to them get them some help don't shut them down because I don't want you to be like me,” said Locklear.