Alcohol: It’s Different for Native Americans

Pub. at drugandalcoholabuse.com

Pub. at drugandalcoholabuse.com

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.

Alcohol - MedicineWheelCMYKIn 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.

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10 Comments

  1. Doug Gerash
    Posted July 31, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Are 12-Step programs as ineffective fighting alcoholism with Native Americans as the rest of us?

    • Posted August 14, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      Doug, In our experience, 12-step programs are effective with millions of people worldwide, including Native Americans. As David Patterson suggests, some Native Americans seem to prefer or excel in other modes of treatment that incorporate Native American traditions and spirituality. Some of the more well known appraoches are referred to as “the Red Road to Recovery” or “Wellbriety.” Some Native Americans also blend 12-step with cultural approaches. But, one key that seems to hold true across all populations and approaches is that treatment is only effective when an individual is ready to embrace sobriety. Thanks for your question.

  2. Posted November 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Me mother is 1/2 Mohawk and me faddah all Irish. One side has been familiar with alcohol from it's inception. The Indian side, only a relatively short time in history. Regardless the answer for both is the belief in a Great Spirit greater than ourselves. Turning out lives and will power over to that spirit 'Higher Power', "Great Spirit' and helping another do the same. Amen.

  3. Posted May 28, 2015 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    I have Irish blood as well as some American Indian in my genes. I'm careful to stay away from fire water.

  4. Posted October 26, 2015 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    a great article. Its amazing to read how genetics lead to abuse vulnerabilities.

  5. Posted November 3, 2015 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    full native and always wondered why i got hooked on alcohol the second it touched my lips

  6. Bill
    Posted January 17, 2016 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I am 1\2 Blackfeet and live on the reservation here. I grew up near an oilfield town and became an oil worker myself. I had 3 situations going which was the perfect combination for 3 day drunks. These binges led me to jails and skid rows (DTLA). I was headed to an AA meeting but instead I found myself at a Christian ministry. It was there I accepted Jesus as my personal saviour. I came back to Montana and followed up to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. I took to a deliverance ministry wherein I became free from the bondage of alcohol and many things previously unknown to me.
    I have, with the power of the Holy Spirit, defeated alcohol and starting to live the life the Lord intended me to live.

    • Posted January 22, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Bill, thank you for sharing. So happy you were able to find a way up and out of the burdens of the disease. We know you will be an inspiration for countless others.

  7. Posted March 21, 2016 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    heyy!!!

    this is interesting …superinformative..
    Some American cultures certainly drank fermented beverages, all sugary liquids ferment without much knowledge or consideration of those who drink them. As for alcoholism, it is certainly more noticeable when distilled spirit are available, to be sure.
    Thanks for the share

  8. Posted June 17, 2016 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Great Share !!
    I love how much thought you have put into this post!
    “It is important to realize that drinking problems are virtually unknown in most of the world’s cultures, including many where drinking is commonplace and occasional drunkenness is accepted. ”
    In most societies, drinking is essentially a social act and as such, it is embedded in a context of values, attitudes, and other norms.

    Thanks for share ! Really great Work keep it up !!

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