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Zinke tribal council

Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke meets the Fort Peck Tribal Council in Poplar on Sunday.

Google "Indian boarding schools" and what it returns is a haunting and harrowing look at good intentions which built a virtual hell.

After the Civil War, the American government took a paternal and cruel approach by ripping American Indian children away from families and sending them to boarding schools. What followed was decades of institutionalized abuse -- physical, sexual, emotional and cultural. 

It serves as a dark moment in an already pitch-black chapter of our nation's history. That's why it's shocking to hear some Native leaders contemplate a place where children can be boarded again. But it may be exactly what is needed. 

Today, though, a boarding facility is not done in the name of assimilation. In fact, today, some Native American leaders in Montana yearn for the return of boarding-type schools where the kids can be kept from assimilating into the reservation culture, which now includes the twin scourges of methamphetamine and opiates. 

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes told Secretary of The Interior Ryan Zinke on a trip last week that meth has overtaken the reservation and left the tribe's law enforcement stretched too thin and its social fabric rent.

Tribal Council Member Marva Chapman-Firemoon said that mothers and grandmas used to take care of the kids. Now, no one is doing that because of the addiction issues.

"I always say that the federal government took our kids off the reservation, took them to boarding schools and all that, but now we want a boarding school, or a dormitory, either one. I think that would be helpful because it would keep our children safe while we worked on the other ones," Chapman-Firemoon said.

That is an incredible statement from a tribal council member who would rather their kids take a chance on being sent away, despite the terrible history of boarding facilities. Then again, with more than 100 children in foster care because of addicted parents, sending children away may be one of the only ways the tribe can get a handle on the scourge.

The irony is indeed tragic: When the government sent the American Indian children away it was to get them to adapt to the world. Now, it may be the only chance at saving a culture that's being decimated by addiction, crime and poverty.

While the drug crisis has certainly gained a national spotlight in other areas of the country, virtually nowhere around have addiction rates this high or the have the challenges been so stark.

We applaud leaders who are trying to do the right thing -- first, worry about the kids, then worry about the mothers and grandmothers who are addicted.

We can't help but point out that if this same epidemic had happened in the interior of a "big city" or in a metropolitan area, this would have a garnered media attention with all sorts of blue-ribbon task forces. 

Because this happened in a state that most coastal politicians would struggle to find, it's ignored, if thought of at all.

But the statistics are alarming and it's literally threatening the very life of the tribe and the community. 

But a family torn apart by addiction, poverty and abuse is no different just because they're in Montana as opposed to Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.  In fact, in those urban areas, there may be more resources. Here are there are few.

The problem is also more complex than just the Department of The Interior, which manages the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Sure, it's chronically understaffed and overworked. But, that's only part of the issue. Addiction, healthcare, education and domestic abuse are not the responsibility of just one agency. 

We also applaud Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure for the courage to tell the story of what is happening to his tribe in honest, unflinching terms. The temptation to tell only a rosy, happy story to Zinke was resisted. Because of Azure's honesty -- and that of the other tribal leaders -- the problem has been elevated. There's no denying it. 

However, we need Zinke and others to be advocates for change and funding. Leaders like Zinke and Montana's congressional delegation must help articulate a problem that few people know because it's isolated to our reservations -- most of which have been racked by the same problem. We need them to point out that this is a national tragedy, ignored and untreated. If left unchecked, it threatens to do what the boarding schools tried unsuccessfully to do -- wipe out the culture and families on the reservation. 

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