OLD TOWN – Drug addiction has spread across the state, killing 418 Mainers last year alone, and the deadly scourge has not missed the Penobscot Indian Nation.
To combat the problem, the nation has developed a holistic approach to addiction that helps the person using drugs on their road to recovery by re-connecting them to their culture, instead of sending them to jail.
We went to Penobscot Indian Island to talk with one former drug user about how he escaped the grip of addiction through the Healing to Wellness Court program.
Penobscot native Gabe Stewart was one of the fastest cross country runners in the state when he attended John Bapst Memorial High School, but he couldn’t outrun drug addiction as an adult.
“I was a total mess at that point in time,” Stewart said Tuesday. “I mean I was spending every dime that I had to my name just on the drugs alone. I wasn’t like living. I was just working to get high.”
He took money from his grandparents to feed his opiate addiction, which resulted in felony charges against him. He entered the tribal Healing to Wellness Court program nearly two years ago.
“It was tough,” said his mother, Tricia Stewart. “He fought tooth and nail. He wanted nothing to do with anything they wanted him to do.”
“And he didn’t care,” she added later. “I’m not sure at what point what clicked and he finally was ok with following the rules and he wasn’t fighting them anymore. And everything seemed to change with him – his mood and his attitude.”
Gabe Stewart said he felt ashamed of his drug use and his actions, but the program has helped him accept his past and make a positive path forward.
The program provides recovery resources through a department of justice grant, and clients get counseling and help with housing and finding a job, but they also are re-introduced to their culture through tribal traditions. Those who stay clean and graduate have the charges against them dismissed. Gabe graduated in January.
Attendees and their support staff sit in a circle when they enter the tribal courtroom.
“It also starts with a smudging,” said Jill Tompkins, Penobscot Judicial Court director. “We require them to do a cultural or community engagement activity every month, so it could be a sweat lodge, they can participate in a community dinner or help elders, so there is a variety of things.”
The Penobscot Nation is applying for another round of Department of Justice grant funding to run the program for another three years. The current grant runs out at the end of March.
The tribal court has proven that those who are addicted to drugs can still find home.
“It’s been tremendous, not only for them but for the community,” Tompkins said. “We haven’t given up on them, and that is one of the great things about being a tribal member.”