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Tribal “Wellness Court” Uses Native American Culture to Assist Addiction Recovery

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A “wellness court” in Minnesota uses Native American ceremonies and other cultural activities to help people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

The court is a partnership between the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and two counties in northern Minnesota. The program targets people with chronic substance abuse problems, Minnesota Public Radio reports.

The wellness court is similar to drug courts. The voluntary program offers structured supervision and rehabilitation for participants, who are non-violent repeat drug and alcohol offenders. The average length of the program is 24 months for felony offenders, and 18 months for those with gross misdemeanor offenses.

One participant featured in the report must attend weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and wellness court meetings every other week, and answer to a probation officer. Program staff can require drug and alcohol testing at any time. Court sessions are held jointly by both tribal and county judges, who receive updates on participants’ progress.

Family members are encouraged to become involved in the process. The program has helped participants find housing and jobs, and has reunited some families.

While some tribal leaders initially were skeptical of the program, they realized it gives tribal judges the opportunity to sit in a courtroom with county judges, as equals. The tribal judges have a direct say in the outcome of cases involving their members.

According to some estimates, as many as 60 percent of the reservation’s tribal residents are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Almost every family is affected. While Ojibwe people make up 12 percent of the population, they usually account for almost half of the county jail population.

“We hear from so many of our participants that maybe a spouse or a significant other got sober with them. Then that affects their children and really has a way to start breaking that cycle of addiction in people’s lives,” said Korey Wahwassuck, an Associate Judge for the Leech Lake Band.

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