A tribal member’s death spurs Swinomish to open addiction treatment center

Four years ago, the overdose death of a young Swinomish Indian Tribal Community member set the tribe on a path to make sure that never happens again.

Another step on that journey was completed Wednesday, with the grand opening ceremony for the tribe’s didgwálic Wellness Center in Anacortes.

The death spurred the tribal community to create a substance abuse treatment program, and since then it has saved the lives of 44 tribal members, Chairman Brian Cladoosby said.

With the opening of the didgwálic center, the tribe will expand the treatment program, offering it to the general public for the first time.

When the outpatient clinic opens Friday, it will be the largest medication-assisted treatment facility north of Snohomish County, said John Stephens, executive director of the center.

We can help our neighbors, our friends. Because we can do that, we have an obligation to do that.

John Stephens, executive director of the didgwálic Wellness Center in Anacortes

In his 37 years working with the Swinomish, Stephens said this project is the most important in which he’s played a part.

“We can help our neighbors, our friends,” Stephens said of a discussion at a tribal senate meeting where the decision was made to offer treatment to nontribal members. “Because we can do that, we have an obligation to do that.”

In the Swinomish language of Lushootseed, the word didgwa´lic? means the place where camas grows. The center stands on land where camas grew, and historically it was a meeting place for the tribe.

“Camas provided a source of nourishment and wellness for the tribe,” Stephens said. “Now, (the land) will continue to do so.”

In addition to offering drugs such as methadone to facilitate addiction treatment, the center is one of few in the state to also offer primary care and mental health counseling in the same building, Stephens said.

At the ceremony Wednesday, Cladoosby shared the story of his niece, Holly Edwards, and her success battling addiction.

“Four years ago, she was working here (at the Swinomish Casino and Lodge), probably denying she had a problem,” he said.

That was until a friend of Edwards called Cladoosby, saying she thought Edwards was using heroin. Cladoosby said the tribe got Edwards help, and she’s been clean for nearly four years.

“Now Holly’s son, my grandnephew, is being raised in a home that’s drug and alcohol free,” he said. “That’s our goal at Swinomish, to destroy this problem one generation at a time.”

Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki was invited to speak at the ceremony, where she shared both congratulations and a personal story.

In August, her son Patrick died of an overdose after spending a decade battling an addiction to prescription painkillers.

By most measures, she said, Patrick should have made it. He had a good-paying job, health insurance, addiction treatment and a loving, supportive family.

“His addiction killed him, in spite of all that,” she said.

She thanked the Swinomish for their investment in community health, saying their efforts will help the entire county talk about addiction and celebrate recovery.

“Chairman Cladoosby always challenges me to think seven generations ahead,” she said. “If we can address this drug addiction problem, it will do good for seven generations.”

Stephens said the center will be able to see 350 patients a year, though when it first opens that number will be limited to 250. He said there is already a significant waiting list.