Alcohol: It’s Different for Native Americans
The majority of the United States will never understand how damaging alcohol has been for Native Americans, perhaps more devastating than any disease, gun, massacre, or policy. The perfect colonizer, alcohol has no conscience. It feels no remorse or regret for the modern holocaust it has caused.
Alcohol has also led the dominant culture to view Native Americans as nothing more than a statistic, a stereotype for the likes of Mike & Molly and countless other shows and films. I wonder whether anyone even finds the sad old joke funny anymore.
Stereotype aside, the most significant impact of alcohol on Native Americans is how the disease takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. Take a look at many of the issues afflicting contemporary reservation communities like domestic violence, health disparities, rape/sexual assault, dropout, and suicide. At least one factor at the heart of all these social ills is alcohol.
Perhaps the greatest enemy Native Americans as a whole have ever faced, alcohol recently found itself pitted against a mobilized and motivated collective representing the Pine Ridge Reservation. Capturing national attention, protests at the overselling of alcohol in Whiteclay, Nebraska (on the southern border of Pine Ridge) made inroads to stop alcohol from reaching tribal members on the “dry” reservation.
On the news announcement that High Plains Budweiser of Scottsbluff will stop distributing to Whiteclay, President Brian Brewer of the Oglala Sioux Tribe noted: “That is a small victory right there.” Still, as President Brewer knows, winning the Battle for Whiteclay will not be the end of the ills of alcohol dependency on reservations.
Part of the battle against alcohol is doctoring the people who are suffering from, affected by, and at risk of the disease of alcoholism. Often, what people forget about alcohol dependency in Indian country is that it’s different for Native Americans than for other ethnicities.
Unlike other cultures that have ingested alcohol for thousands of years, the relationship between indigenous Americans and alcohol is relatively new. Native Americans have had fewer centuries to develop the genetic tolerance to alcohol that is present in other ethnic groups. Mix in poverty and living with ongoing oppression, and alcohol contributes to a state of emergency on many reservations.
In addition, Dr. David Patterson (Cherokee) has found that cultural disconnection plays a large part in alcoholism for Native Americans, as it did in his case. The shame and abuse from historical trauma suffered by Native peoples, and the forced disconnection from culture and heritage, is a perfect setup that can lead to alcohol abuse to ease the pain. The lack of genetic disposure to the substance only adds to this vulnerability.
Yet, hope is not lost. In addition to self-disclosure as formerly alcohol-addicted, Dr. Patterson is an avid researcher at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, who understands the unique approach to combating alcoholism in Indian country. He, along with many treatment providers and healers, believes that successful intervention and treatment for alcohol dependency among Native Americans must blend modern counseling techniques with traditional culture and spirituality.