Myths, Reality, and Solutions of Native American Alcoholism — by Gay Moore

Beginning in colonial America, the myth of the drunken Indian persisted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The current, more “enlightened,” explanation for the high incidence of alcoholism among Native Americans, concludes that since they were exposed to alcohol for only the past few hundred years, they were genetically unprepared and, therefore, have little genetic “immunity.” American Native people, therefore, have little tolerance for alcohol, become intoxicated on small amounts, and, consequently, experience high rates of alcoholism. This belief, like many others concerning Native American culture, adds to the stereotype of genetic inferiority that continues to influence white American thinking.

Native alcoholism is, indeed, a serious issue. According the Indian Health Services, alcoholism is the most urgent health problem faced by Native Americans. The rate of alcoholism is six times the United States average. Indeed, 75% of all Native American deaths are linked to alcoholism! The most common causes of death include motor vehicle accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes, and suicide. Alcoholism among Native women results in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome rates two times the national average.

Research conducted by the Indiana Research Center and the University of California indicates that some Native Americans do carry a genetic risk factor for alcoholism. They tend to be “low responders” rather than “high responders.” Rather than handling alcohol poorly, they handle it too well, requiring more alcohol, not less, in order to feel its effects. This low response is a risk factor for the development of alcoholism in all populations.

However, genetic risk factors alone do not account for the enormous differences between the rates of Native American alcoholism and that of the general population. The litany of offenses perpetuated on Native peoples by the white culture is well documented. The resulting poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and family dysfunction are highly correlated with increased alcoholism. In addition, a fractured cultural identity, isolation from the larger culture as well as their own as they leave their communities to obtain education or find employment, racist attitudes and stereotypes held the general population, and inconsistent and often abusive governmental policies, make the mood altering effects of alcohol attractive.

The hopeless and despair of reservation life and the feelings of cultural estrangement fade for awhile under the influence of alcohol. Indeed, the incidence of alcoholism is affected by the cultural and economic situation of the community. Less deprived Native communities do have lower rates of alcoholism than those who suffer from extreme poverty and the attendant problems.

Recovery from the effects of alcohol use among American Native people dates backed to the early 19th century. Unique Native abstinence-based cultural re-vitalization movements emphasized not only abstinence from alcohol, but a return to ancestral traditions. In the 1960s, the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were adapted to Native American culture.

According to Don Cohylis and William White, (Counselor, 2002) those who would seek to assist Native Americans in their recovery from addiction realize that most effective recovery program is often created by recovering Native men and women. The tradition of the wounded healer comes from the Native tradition that recovery from a serious illness is a potential sign of a calling to be a healer.

Healing is framed not in only the context of personal healing, but healing of the family and community as well. Since alcohol is viewed as a weapon of conquest and oppression, sobriety becomes a strategy of cultural resistance. Native recovery and healing includes a number of unique elements:

  • Commitment not only to sobriety, but also to community
  • Purification of the body and spirit
  • Affirmation of personal and cultural identity
  • Reconciliation with family and friends Substitution with other sacred substances
  • Reconstruction of values Reconnection with the community
  • Participation in pro-recovery rituals
  • Transmission of stories through oral traditions
  • Finding meaning within the context of Native history, culture, and, religion.

While the problem is serious, complex, and long-standing, solutions that focus on Native healing beliefs and address social problems within Native populations offer the best chance of effectively decreasing the suffering and devastation of addiction among Native Americans.

Gay Morgan Moore

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