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$590M opioid settlement ‘doesn’t seem like very much’ for Native Americans

A sign calling attention to drug overdoses is posted to the door of a gas station on the White Earth reservation in Ogema, Minn., Tuesday, Nov. 16th. AP Photo/David Goldman

When Native American tribes announced they’d reached a tentative $590 million settlement with Johnson & Johnson and other opioid distributors earlier this month, it was hailed as a historic win for Indigenous tribes, who had been ignored in other class-action lawsuits

Natalee Kehaulani Bauer, professor of race, gender and sexuality studies at Mills College, discusses a recent $590 million opioid settlement for Native American tribes. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

The settlement comes as overdose deaths in the U.S. soared during the pandemic and continue to climb, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2019 and 2020, the overdose death rates for Black and Indigenous Americans surpassed that of white Americans, ramping up the need for Native American recovery funding. 

But Natalee Kehaulani Bauer, head of the Ethnic Studies department at Mills College, warns that the settlement celebrations may be premature. Kehaulani Bauer, who is a Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, says that while the agreement indicates progress, it also highlights a roster of ongoing issues that Native Americans continue to face.

Kehaulani Bauer’s comments have been lightly edited. Northeastern and Mills finalized their merger in September 2021, establishing Mills College at Northeastern University.

What did you think when you heard about the settlement?

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade if they’re very excited about winning this battle in court. But I also want the average, non-Indigenous person to have a more complex understanding of what this really means, not just in terms of the actual payments, but also what it means in terms of the longer relationships between Indigenous governments and the U.S. government. And the settlement just doesn’t seem like very much when you look at where the money is going to go.

Can you explain how this settlement touches on the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government?

The settlement only affects federally recognized tribes, so that’s about 574 tribes. But there are estimated to be around 400 non-recognized tribes, and there are a lot of problems with that. The first is that those folks won’t see anything, according to the settlement. More importantly, this once again highlights the settler, or colonial, aspect of federal recognition. In Hawaii, we call it “fed wreck,” and the government keeps trying to impose a sort of tribal status on natives. No one wants that, because right now, many argue Hawaii is recognized as a sovereign nation occupied by the United States. If we acknowledge and accept federal recognition, we actually give up our sovereignty.

What does that mean for Native American tribes?

It’s what I refer to in my classes as pseudo-sovereignty, because we talk about it as a nation-to-nation relationship, but native tribes don’t actually enjoy the sort of sovereignty and relationships that America has with European countries, for example.

The bottom line is, I find it problematic that Indigenous peoples have to be recognized by settler governments in order to qualify for this. This aid could be so helpful to so many, but this aspect gets in the way of people accessing what they need.

What other issues do you have with the settlement?

If you look at $590 million spread out to 574 recognized tribes, that’s a little more than $1 million per tribe. If you ask anyone who runs a nonprofit, they’ll tell you $1 million doesn’t go very far. It’s not enough money to create a community center or an opioid treatment center, or any sort of long-term benefit. 

Any tribal government who gets this $1 million will find a way to make it work. They’re going to hustle and they’re going to stretch this money and they’re going to do good things with it. But what we owe to Native communities on this continent would be for companies like Johnson & Johnson to actually pay their appropriate taxes. Because taxes are what fund drug-treatment centers and schools and hospitals and after-school programs. And a lot of things that may have prevented opioid addiction in the first place.

Is there anything that’s important for people to understand about the settlement?

It’s a little frustrating that no one’s really held accountable. In every article that’s been written about the settlement, they mention that Johnson & Johnson will acknowledge no wrongdoing. So the settlement becomes just a way to make their problems go away. There’s no meaning behind it. 

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