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Fear of losing heritage drives Cherokee Nation opioid case

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES: Maurice Cato, an Appellation Cherokee from West Virginia, stands after praying to Mother Earth and Grandfather Sky in front of the US Capitol Building before the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian 21 September, 2004, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The museum is the new home of the largest and most diverse collection of Indian art and artifacts in the world. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation officials say fear of losing the tribe’s heritage is driving a lawsuit that alleges distributors and retailers of opioid medications have contributed to prescription opioid abuse within the tribe.

The New York Times reports that opioid use is so prevalent that 70 percent of Cherokee foster children in Oklahoma have been placed in the homes of non-Indians.

Tribal Attorney general Todd Hembree says babies in opioid withdrawal and youngsters with addicted parents are being removed from families and tribal officials fear the tribe is losing a generation of its continuity.

The lawsuit was filed in Cherokee Nation District Court in April. But opioid producers claim that the tribe cannot sue them in tribal court, much less enforce federal drug laws.