Opioid settlement funds can be spent on traditional healing in tribal nations : Shots - Health News Hundreds of Native American tribes are getting money from lawsuit settlements with opioid companies. Some are investing the new funds in traditional healing practices to treat addiction.

A tribe in Maine is using opioid settlement funds on a sweat lodge to treat addiction

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A Native American tribe in Maine is opening a sweat lodge built with opioid settlement money. The funds come from companies accused of fueling the opioid crisis. The terms of the settlement allow tribes to spend it on traditional healing practices, and the sweat lodge is something people in recovery have been asking for, but the tribe in Maine couldn't afford to offer it until now. Aneri Pattani with our partner KFF Health News reports.

ANERI PATTANI, BYLINE: It's a windy day at the M'ikmaq Nation's health department complex in northern Maine, just minutes from the Canadian border.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING WOOD)

PATTANI: Outside, John Dennis and his son are chopping wood and starting a fire. Dennis used to be the tribe's cultural director, and now he leads wellness programs. He's known around the community for telling dad jokes.

JOHN DENNIS: If you go through the store, you know, a person that's, like, handling your groceries is a grocer. But if his nose was runny, that would be grosser. You know?

(LAUGHTER)

PATTANI: This morning, Dennis is preparing to demonstrate a sweat ceremony for me. Traditionally, these were for tribal members returning from hunting or war to spiritually cleanse themselves. Now the health department hopes people in addiction or recovery find healing in the sweat lodge. It's a dome-shaped tent made from tree saplings and looks like it would fit about 10 people.

DENNIS: We call it the womb of Mother Earth. So when we go in, we go in and we come out crawling.

PATTANI: When you emerge from a sweat, you feel almost reborn, Dennis says. Today, the sweat process starts with an open campfire that he and his son built near the lodge. There are rocks inside it. The fire heats the rocks, which represent spirits.

DENNIS: We call the rocks are grandfathers, grandmothers.

PATTANI: A staffer carries the rocks on a pitchfork into the lodge.

DENNIS: They come in, we close the door and then from there, we splash water onto them.

PATTANI: The rocks sizzle, and the lodge fills with steam. It's like a sauna but hotter, and the air is thicker.

DENNIS: It will be pitch black in there. So you feel like you're alone, but at the same time, you're not.

PATTANI: What happens inside can differ in each sweat. Today, Dennis leads me and a few staff members in four rounds of prayer. The first is for childhood trauma and praying for children everywhere. The second focuses on teenagers and women. The third is for medicine, which can be pharmaceutical or something more emotional like laughter and love. And the final round is for elders and forgiveness, forgiving others and yourself.

DENNIS: The idea is that you're praying for yourself or you're praying for the people that are around you. And that builds empathy.

PATTANI: It's hard to tell time inside the lodge. But when I emerged about an hour later, each gust of main wind felt sharper than before. We all shook hands and thanked each other for the experience we just shared. Dennis says the sweat lodge fosters a sense of connection that can be healing for people with addiction, who often feel cut off from the community. He knows. He's in recovery himself.

DENNIS: The culture helped me to get sober. It wasn't the programs. It was the culture, finding who I am.

PATTANI: The M'ikmaq health department already offers mental health counseling, medications to treat opioid addiction, and help with housing and employment. Health director Katie Espling says many tribal members crave spiritual healing, too, especially to overcome intergenerational trauma. But insurance doesn't pay for those services.

KATIE ESPLING: The opiate litigations funds have been an absolute blessing for us.

PATTANI: The tribe spent about $50,000 of settlement money to build the sweat lodge and prepare staff to operate it. They plan to hold addiction-focused sweats once a month. Espling says six patients already signed up for the first one in May.

ESPLING: We're giving them what they need, what they really are asking for.

PATTANI: The tribe's chief, Edward Peter-Paul, has faith this new service will be transformative for people because it was for him. About two decades ago, when he was struggling with drugs and alcohol, Peter-Paul turned to a sweat ceremony.

EDWARD PETER-PAUL: That last round, it's like somebody had taken a bucket of water and literally dumped it on my head. I could feel it go through my whole freaking body. And after that, man, after that feeling, it was just like so calming. And it's like you're at peace finally.

PATTANI: He hopes the new healing lodge will bring that same experience to all tribal members who need it. I'm Aneri Pattani in Presque Isle, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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