A New Menace On The Rez

It didn't take Navajo police-woman Fayetta Dale long to realize there was something drastically wrong with Mervyn Nelson when Dale responded to a domestic-disturbance call on the reservation last fall. Highly agitated, Nelson, a 20-year-old gang member, ran away at first, then started punching her when she caught him and tried to throw on the handcuffs. After Dale doused him with pepper spray, Nelson slammed down on her left arm until he broke it. She tried to subdue him with her baton, but "it didn't have any effect," she recalls. Then Nelson started choking her. Fearing for her life, the officer drew her pistol and shot him in the chest. The autopsy gave a clue to his violent behavior: the dead man, according to Navajo investigators, had methamphetamine in his bloodstream.

America's Indian reservations have a meth problem. "Meth is becoming the drug of choice in Indian Country," says Duwayne Honahni, chief of special investigations for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, noting that crystal methamphetamine now ranks second only to marijuana among illegal drugs on reservations. A pure form of it called "glass," or "G," has flooded the United States' largest reservation, the Navajo Nation, where 180,000 people live in an area the size of West Virginia straddling the Four Corners region of the Southwest. Powerful and cheap, glass is diabolically seductive for a place short on economic opportunity. For as little as $20, three or four users can get an all-day high, snorting the drug, injecting it or, in most cases, smoking it, often with makeshift pipes fashioned from hollowed-out light bulbs. The highly addictive intruder led to a dozen deaths near Tuba City, Ariz., alone last year, and it's now a factor in half the serious crimes on the reservation, estimates FBI Agent Nick Manns.

Meth has found its way to much of rural America in recent years, so it's little surprise that Indian Country is feeling the pain, too. The number of people treated for amphetamine use at Indian Health Service sites has doubled--from 2,167 in all of 2000 to 4,077 through early September; officials warn that owing to reporting problems, those numbers likely understate the case. No reservation, it seems, is too remote. In South Dakota, a five-year-old task force of FBI, tribal, state and local investigators that used to work mainly pot cases is now "vastly overwhelmed by methamphetamine trafficking," says FBI Agent Andy de la Rocha, investigating some 80 to 90 meth cases over six reservations and the land in between. Many cases involve meth brought in by non-Indians. Drug networks "have targeted Indian reservations because they believe there is a lack of law-enforcement presence," says the BIA's top cop in Washington, Walt Lamar. "The thin blue line is even thinner there."

Already hit hard by intransigent poverty, alcoholism and a 43 percent unemployment rate, the Navajo were slow to realize the depth of their meth problem. But they are now beginning to mobilize. Tribal lawmakers plan to criminalize the drug to make prosecutions easier: at present, meth is not illegal under tribal law, and even misdemeanor cases have to be tried in federal court in Flagstaff, 100 miles away. Health officials including Tuba City Hospital surgeon Thomas Drouhard began barnstorming schools and meetinghouses last spring with prevention talks--warning of the delusions and psychosis meth addiction can bring. His hospital commissioned a tough documentary film on meth that will open to Navajo audiences in October. Navajo Behavioral Health staffers are fighting addiction by combining Western medicine with sweat lodges and other traditional Navajo practices.

But the fight will be a long and hard one. Not far from the treatment center in Chinle, Kari Y., 20, told a NEWSWEEK photographer she's smoked G since she was 17, but recently decided to quit. She and a friend tried going to self-help meet-ings at the local hospital, but found them "stupid," and stopped going after a few weeks. She still wants to quit, and is trying to smoke less often. When did she last use glass? "Yesterday," she says. Meth won't go away easily.