by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
February 7, 2022
After years of court battles tribes in Nevada are on a path to receive reparations from some of the largest United States drug distributors and a top drugmaker they say fueled an opioid epidemic in their communities.
Last week, tribal representatives reached settlements to resolve claims by hundreds of Native American tribes totaling $590 million against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the country’s three largest drug distribution companies, colloquially known as the “big three.”
Under the deal, Johnson & Johnson would pay $150 million over two years. Drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, and Cardinal Health would pay $440 million in total over seven years, according to court filings.
The committee representing the litigating tribes said Native Americans “have suffered the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses,” in court filings.
More than 400 tribes and inter-tribal organizations representing over 70% of tribes and about 85% of all tribal citizens have pending lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies. All federally recognized tribes will be able to participate in the newly filed settlements, even if they did not sue over opioids.
Several tribes in Nevada joined the hundreds of tribes who sued over opioids.
In statements submitted to the court as part of the multidistrict opioid litigation, Nevada tribes described how the opioid crisis has “devoured” tribal resources, including increasing costs for health care, education, child services, housing, law enforcement and other services that tribes provide to their citizens.
Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the settlement announcement was met “with a lot of hearty congratulations” to their litigation team.
“Even though we are still dealing with the hardship of opioid abuse in our community, we are hopeful of the decision. We will continue to enhance our opioid abuse prevention services in order to initiate healing for our community,” Melendez said.
The tribe has long fought for a successful resolution to the opioid crisis to protect their way of life.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Northern Nevada said the opioid crisis “is eroding all that the Tribe has built,” in a 2018 brief to the court asking that tribes be allowed to represent themselves, separate from their states, in the massive nationwide opioid litigation.
“The Tribe maintains a tribal court system, a police force, and a health clinic for its members, but these resources are being destroyed by opioid abuse,” wrote the tribe in the amicus brief.
There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. that could decide whether to participate in the settlement as distinct sovereign nations, adding uncertainty to the final allocation for each tribe.
“We applaud the end of this litigation. However, there are not yet any specific details about what this will mean for the RSIC and how much money we will eventually receive to address this issue that has negatively impacted so many Native communities,” Melendez said.
The settlement is expected to hasten distribution of funds to tribes facing mounting needs. However, the deal will not take effect until at least 95% of litigating tribes agree to the settlement, say tribal leaders.
“It’s still going to be awhile before we see any kind of distribution,” said Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada. “It’s going to take a lot of collaboration and a lot of negotiation going forward.”
Torres said the Walker River Paiute Tribe joined the Johnson & Johnson litigation early on and approached the case as an act of tribal sovereignty. The opioid litigation demonstrates how tribes are distinct, sovereign entities who were uniquely harmed by the opioid epidemic.
“We have to make sure that people are held accountable, especially when it comes to the impact it’s had on our people,” Torres said. “No matter how long it takes we need to continue to be at the table and continue to fight for justice for our constituents and for our tribal citizens.”
The Walker River Paiute Tribe has created outreach programs to address the opioid crisis, including substance abuse counseling and educational activities. But those critical programs have drained resources from other programs over the years, and whether the tribe will get significant relief from the settlement is still a question.
“Distributing $590 million among more than 400 tribes, what is that going to look like? What is the tribe really going to get out of that?” Torres said.
Whatever the tribe does receive will be used to “benefit the people and create a future for the next seven generations,” Torres said.
The opioid crisis generated widespread action among Tribal Nations across the country, including hundreds of lawsuits in federal, state, and Tribal courts seeking compensation for tribal governments and their citizens. Torres said she believes collective action by tribes made the settlement possible.
“We make a louder noise together,” Torres said. “No matter how unique we are as sovereign nations, we’re stronger as a group fighting for the same issue with the same voice.”
Other tribes in Nevada have also used their voice to describe how the opioid crisis affected native people in the state as part of the sprawling years-long opioid litigation.
In a 2018 amicus brief to the court, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Northern Nevada said nearly 45% of the tribe’s members are unemployed “which is directly related to the catastrophic opioid crisis.” The tribe said their limited resources have made it difficult to combat the opioid crisis, inflicted on the tribe by opioid manufacturers and distributors.
The Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe in Nevada wrote that they strive to revitalize “the traditional ways of life that are the very heart of their people” but “Opioid use and abuse has permeated throughout the Tribe” and harmed efforts to “maintain its cultural values, traditions, and heritage.”
Forced off their lands by settlers, the Ely Shoshone Tribe in Nevada has proudly continued their heritage and culture, wrote the tribe in a statement to the court. Now the tribe operates a smoke shop and textile business, but the tribe’s resources have been “devoured by the opioid crisis.”
“Like others in the Great Basin area, the members of the Ely Shoshone Tribe have come to know first-hand the pain caused by opioids,” wrote the tribe. “The Tribe is struggling to maintain this fight with the scarce resources it has.”
Tribes in the Southwest, including Nevada, have been facing an opioid crisis for over a decade.
According to Indian Health Services, from 2008 to 2016 the number of reported opioid-related deaths, inpatient incidences, and emergency department incidences increased 310% among the Native peoples within the Phoenix Area Indian Health Service area, which covers tribal members in all of Nevada and most of Utah and Colorado, excluding the portions of those states that are part of the Navajo Nation.
Torres said the settlement reached with Johnson & Johnson, and the drug distributors is not a final solution to the enormous repercussions the opioid crisis has had on native people, but it’s a start.
“I think it will always be an ongoing issue but if we demand the change now and if we start holding the right people accountable then it will set a precedent going forward,” Torres said.
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