Newly opened Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of the Cherokee Nation)

A new shelter on the Cherokee Nation reservation has opened up to house up to 10 families who are survivors of domestic violence. 

The 11,000-square-foot shelter in Stilwell, Oklahoma, has playrooms for children and can provide necessities including food, clothing, and an on-site laundromat, Shelter Manager Amy Edgmon told the Daily Yonder. 

Women are often seeking immediate safe shelter, said ONE FIRE Director Deb Proctor. ONE FIRE Victim Services offers a variety of services including housing, legal, and advocacy assistance to women who are victims of a crime. The program offers assistance to tribal citizens and non-tribal citizens who qualify and reside within the tribe’s 14-county jurisdiction in northeast Oklahoma. 

“We can provide that now with a shelter in addition to some other locations that we are able to utilize,” Proctor told the Daily Yonder. “And this [shelter] gives them an opportunity for anywhere from a month to an extended period to take steps to get their life back on track or a path to just get on track.”

The shelter opened on December 20 and there was a client the next day, both women said. 

Although rates of domestic violence aren’t known precisely on the reservation, Proctor gave some numbers that illustrate the issue. In 2021, ONE FIRE had 440 clients. In 2022, that number increased to 819 clients. In the first 15 work days of 2023, ONE FIRE has seen 76 clients, she said. 

“So you can see just by the numbers, that the need has grown just exponentially,” she said. “If you were to take 76 clients every 15 days, you can imagine where we’d be in a year. So we deal with a multitude of problems. We have to try to address the best we can: referrals for alcoholism, substance abuse, homelessness, mental health issues. And then, of course, domestic violence is weaved throughout those.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said domestic violence has been prevalent throughout time and history.

“But certainly, the pandemic revealed some of those problems and exacerbated some of those problems,” he told the Daily Yonder. “I think it’s well documented that some of the stressors associated with the pandemic, in terms of health and economic stress and everything related to that, has exacerbated some pre-existing problems.”

Hoskin said that ONE FIRE has been around for a decade, but one issue was that there was no shelter. Now that has changed. 

“And so being able to create that safe space as we’ve done in Stilwell is important because it allows us to keep victims and survivors safe, but also be able to engage with them on how they can transition from a world in which they are fearing for their safety – about their lives – to a world in which they’re getting back to the things that everyone needs to be about in terms of being productive people in the community, which is jobs and raising children and that sort of thing,” he said. 

He said the new domestic violence shelter is the “new chapter, but not the last chapter,” adding that he anticipates needing more shelters and transitional living centers. 

Hoskin also recently toured the newly opened Cherokee Nation Harm Reduction Program in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is also open to anyone.

The Cherokee Nation was the first tribe in the country to receive a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant specifically to start a harm-reduction program that offers syringe services to reduce drug use and keep clients healthier by preventing the transmission of blood-borne infections.

For over a year, Cherokee Nation leaders have studied and toured effective harm-reduction programs on tribal lands in Washington and North Carolina, which are lowering Hepatitis C incidence rates, reducing drug overdoses, and supporting public safety. In North Carolina, tribal leaders visited a program by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Hoskin said.  

“It was the first time that I spoke to people kind of on the front lines of this kind of effort about what it means for somebody who’s struggling with addiction to come into a facility that is not demonstrating any sort of negative judgment about them,” Hoskin said about the Eastern Band’s program. “That’s not reinforcing any stigma. It’s not immediately talking to them about getting to a recovery program. Instead, it’s meeting them where they are in a very compassionate way, whether it’s basic nutrition, whether it’s just another person to talk to, particularly somebody who’s been through it.”

Cherokee Nation makes up less than 6% of Oklahoma’s population, yet nearly a third of the opioids distributed in the state in recent years went into Cherokee Nation communities, causing generational health issues and vast trauma.

The state of Oklahoma also has one of the highest Hepatitis C virus prevalence rates in the U.S. with 56%, due to injection drug use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the new clinic, clients can bring in previously used syringes for safe disposal to get sterile syringes. Clients can also receive Fentanyl test strips, Narcan nasal spray, HIV and Hep C virus rapid testing, recovery support, referrals, and basic clothing and hygiene kits at the clinic.

“This is really a leading program, I think, in terms of it being in a Tribal Nation,” Hoskin said. “And certainly, in a state in which this kind of service is needed and is emerging. There’s other services in the state, but I think we’re showing some leadership because we’re opening this up to everyone in the community.”

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