SEATTLE (AP) – Roxanne White was in “a very desperate and very broken place” when she first came to the Thunderbird Treatment Center in 2002.
White, Nez Perce, Yakama, A’aninin (Gros Ventre), and Nooksack, have struggled with addiction and a history of trauma that she has not yet faced. Thunderbird was the first place White heard a story like her own, told by women attending one of the centre’s Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings.
The treatment center became a foundation for her recovery, and today White uses her own history of human trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence to advocate for the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP).
“It was amazing, changed my life,” she said.
But in February, Thunderbird will close its doors after 33 years of helping Native Americans like White fight substance use disorders in its current location. The Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB) owns and operates Thunderbird and plans to sell the Rainier Beach property and use the proceeds to build a more modern facility with more amenities and more treatment beds.
However, when exactly this new facility will open remains unclear. That means that on the day Thunderbird closes, there will be no inpatient facility to replace it, leaving the community with no critical resource to treat addiction to low-income and mostly Alaskan and Native American patients (Thunderbird also serves non-locals).
Thunderbird’s 65 inpatient treatment beds make up nearly 20% of all state-approved inpatient treatment beds in Seattle. These places offer extensive support for people struggling with substance crises.
SIHB has reduced its 45-day treatment intake and has transition plans for its three remaining patients on long-term treatment. Those in charge also plan to expand the facility’s outpatient treatment program to mitigate the effects of the temporary closure.
However, some fear what the facility’s closure will mean in the short term.
“I think it is badly planned because it will affect people struggling with alcoholism or narcotics,” said David Northover, a member of the board of commissioners for the Yakama Nation Housing Authority. “It’s a catastrophe for all of these people who have no place to go like Thunderbird.”
Northover himself is a graduate of the Thunderbird Treatment Center after four stations as a patient. He was homeless on the Yakama Reservation for years, slept in alleys and struggled with chronic alcoholism. Thunderbird eventually put him in sober accommodation. He became an advocate for families affected by poverty and was the chairman of the board of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
The SIHB board had been discussing the sale of the property for six years, said Esther Lucero, CEO of SIHB, Diné. The building was old and unable to accommodate people the health authority wanted to serve, such as pregnant women and people with disabilities. The cost of repairs or remodeling was too high and a buyer’s interest opened up an opportunity. The health authority has not established who the buyer is because the sale is ongoing.
“We have reached a dead end,” said SIHB Chairman Chris Stearns, the first Navajo Indian elected to Auburn City Council. The board felt, “We have to do it now.”
The plans for the new facility include 92 beds. According to Lucero, this will be “the most important treatment program for native people in the country”.
This means “treating traditional Indian medicine with the same respect as western medicine and that no matter what substance they try to overcome, our staff can access the recovery services they need,” said Lucero. “Where families can be part of the recovery and where we can offer re-entry into their communities in a truly mindful way.”
Billie Jo Kipp, former director of behavioral health at SIHB and Thunderbird and current senior fellow at the Aspen Institute, said cultural interventions like the one at Thunderbird are vital to the health and recovery of Native American people.
“What happens with Native American addiction is that we often end up in a treatment program that doesn’t take into account our way of getting well,” said Kipp, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.
If walls could talk
The Thunderbird Treatment Center estate was originally built in 1926 for unmarried mothers. The furnishings still bear traces of this history today: a door to a staff bathroom that is too narrow for a wheelchair, a waiter that no longer exists and has been painted over.
What the building lacks in modern amenities, it has a view. The wide windows look out onto calm Lake Washington.
“A lot has been healed in these countries,” said Shannon Jackson (Nez Perce), the center’s community relations manager, as she walked the compound on a Friday.
The Thunderbird speaking circles were an important part of that healing, Northover said. He described sitting in a circle around burning sage with roommates, praying and sharing experiences. This discussion group process made Thunderbird unique in addition to traditional arts and crafts classes, where people could share experiences about their culture and teach others.
“If these walls could speak,” said Northover, “it would be so powerful.”
Thunderbird is one of only a handful of treatment centers offering services to urban Indians in the Pacific Northwest. SIHB, its parent organization, is funded primarily through grants from the Federal Indian Health Service (IHS).
Tribes, urban Indians, lawyers, and the US Civil Rights Commission have long claimed the IHS is chronically underfunded. In fiscal 2017, IHS spent $ 3,332 per person on medical care while Medicaid spent $ 8,109. A report by the United States Civil Rights Commission published in the winter of 2018 argued that “the budget for urban Indian health care has not kept pace with inflation and the growing urban Indian population”.
Another problem: funding to contain the overdose crisis has increasingly focused more on drug treatment and less on inpatient care, Lucero said. Thunderbird does not currently offer drug treatment, but plans to open its future facility.
Dr. Walt Hollow, one of the founding members of SIHB and the current assistant director of the family medicine program at the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority, said there is already a critical shortage of beds for tribal members in need of hospitalization. Thunderbird’s temporary shutdown means even fewer beds for patient referrals and likely more people returning to drinking or using drugs when they cannot access care.
“This will affect us,” said Hollow, who is an Assiniboine and Sioux. “I hope it will restart as soon as possible.”
Thunderbird’s 45-day treatment program was rare, said Dana Francis, program manager for convalescence organization Peer Seattle. Most treatment programs only last 15 days, Francis said, and people who need longer treatment are already faced with waiting lists that can be three to six weeks.
“Access on demand is critical,” said Francis. “You have to catch people when they’re in this place, ‘Yeah, I want to do that.'”
To meet that demand, Lucero said the organization is returning to the original vision the community had for Thunderbird – to build a beautiful space. When the facility opened in 1987, it started with 95 beds before being reduced to 65.
“In the for-profit world, when you relax, it’s like retreating,” Lucero said. “Why shouldn’t our people have that?”