A year and half ago, Gabe Stewart stood in tribal court pleading guilty to felony charges because he stole money from his family to support his opioid addiction. In January, his community honored him for overcoming addiction and watched as his case was dismissed entirely.
Stewart is a member of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, a state hit hard by the opioid crisis. American indigenous communities like his are also some of the hardest hit, with overdose deaths for rural American Indians and Alaska Natives rising by 519 percent between 1999 and 2015, more than double the increase nationally.
When Stewart faced felony charges related to his addiction to Percocet, he was able to benefit from his tribe's unique approach to addiction. Recognizing that issues with substance abuse in native communities often arise from intergenerational trauma, the Penobscot Nation attempts to reacquaint criminal drug offenders with tribal traditions and cultural practices to help them make a full recovery.
Tribal members who commit substance abuse-related crimes can enter a program called the Healing to Wellness Court, which operates something like a traditional drug court but offers a cultural curriculum.
Participants receive services such as counseling, assistance with housing, regular drug tests, and check-ins with the court’s case manager. The 15 staff service providers meet bi-monthly to discuss the progress of each participant, a coordination feat seldom found in larger drug court systems
State-run drug courts do offer some similar services, but what makes the Healing to Wellness Court unique is the integration of Penobscot traditions and rituals into the program.
Guided by cultural advisers, participants are required to take part in activities that include sweetgrass picking, basket making, and sweat lodge ceremonies that offer both healing and spiritual benefits. Because addiction can lead to isolation from the larger community, these cultural activities allow offenders an opportunity to reconnect with the community and embrace their identity.
VICE News followed Stewart on his last day in the Healing to Wellness Court.