It is said that alcoholism has been more devastating for Native Americans than any other tool that was introduced during European colonialism. For a variety of reasons, alcohol has had devastating effects for indigenous people, often affecting this population more profoundly than other substances. In this post, I will focus on the adverse effects of alcoholism amongst Native American tribes and families.
I am a Native American woman who has dealt with a challenging relationship with alcohol. It is no secret that Native Americans experience hardships with alcoholism, as this fact has been used to our detriment, dating back to colonial times. With April being National Alcohol Awareness month + National Minorities Health month, I will offer some information surrounding our long and strenuous relationship with alcohol.
Alcohol was first introduced to Indigenous Americans in its potent, social drinking format by European colonizers. Before colonization, some tribes had weaker beers or fermented beverages that were primarily used for ceremonies. When European colonizers came to this land, they introduced more potent alcohols, as well as a culture of excess and abusive consumption habits. Furthermore, colonizers often used alcohol as a device to weaken indigenous people during negotiations and hostilities. In light of how Natives were introduced to alcohol, it is not surprising to see how the relationship between the two has proven to be more challenging than satisfying. It’s been reported that 12% of all Native American deaths have been linked to alcoholism, more than three times the national average. Considering the fact that we make up less than 2% of the nation, the full detriment of this statistic begins to surface.
Growing up, I remember my mother and her siblings mentioning how irate my grandfather would become when intoxicated. He seemed to be a totally different person whenever he had liquor in his system. My grandfather quit drinking long before I was born, though the effects of his drinking lived on. His enraged drunken moments seemed to be a thing of the past, until I noticed the same actions in myself.
I began drinking alcohol and wine at the age of 22, and because I started drinking later than my peers, I thought that I’d have more control of myself and the situations around me. I noticed that alcohol didn’t sit well with my body after a night of drinking landed me in the hospital. At the time, I was highly stressed out from my job while working in Jacksonville, FL, and counted it as an epic night that would never happen again. Well, I was wrong.
I was told that these types of episodes happened only when people “mixed liquors,” and I vowed that I would stay away from mixing. Over the course of the next year, I let go of drinking liquor and stuck to wine only, to make sure that I could control myself and the potential urges that came after consuming alcohol.
After a year long hiatus, I limited drinking liquor to nights out with my friends, though each time I drank, I would sulk into a depressive state and would sometimes lash out at whomever was closeby in the moment. I began to think that maybe I had some underlying issues that needed resolving, and even thought about what my family had told me about my grandfather. After each episode I experienced, I felt a lot of regret and disappointment toward myself, because even though I could remember my actions from the previous night, I couldn’t piece together why I became so defensive and impulsive.
My personal experience–along with my grandfather’s–propelled me to take a deeper dive into what makes us tick in alcohol-fueled moments like this. when we should be experiencing euphoria and having a good time. Although I do not struggle with alcoholism, I have sought out professional guidance for my bouts with alcohol. It is important to broaden our nation’s understanding of the effects this substance has on our country’s original people.
In my research, I discovered that many Native tribes across the United States deal with the same experiences, even though many of us have never connected with one another. While Native people are not more at risk for developing any substance use disorder based on their genetic makeup, several factors make this population more vulnerable than most other ethnic groups. These factors include, among others: a family history of substance abuse, an additional mental disorder, a history of trauma or stress, being in a lower socioeconomic status group, and poor health or chronic medical conditions.
In addition to the factors listed, it is important to reemphasize the way that alcohol was introduced to Native Americans. It was used in colonial times as a tool to get tribes to lower their defenses, by making them incoherent. It was supplied and consumed in excess. It was introduced to Native Americans suddenly and in manipulative ways that gave our people little time to develop our own healthy guidelines around the substance. Considering this introduction and the variety of ways that Native people have been neglected, under-resourced, and marginalized, it’s not hard to see why the population today struggles with alcohol use.
While there have been federal programs instituted nationwide to help Native nations overcome substance abuse and the effects of colonialism, this population needs much more help, assistance, and resources that they’ve ever been offered. Native Americans communities have been marginalized for so long that many Natives may not be aware that such issues exist.
My independent research has been fueled by my own experiences, and thus I suggest that readers go forth and explore the tagged resources for themselves. For example, Indian Health Service’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program is a federal program in place to help Native Americans reduce the incidence and prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse among the Indigenous population. You may find more information, as well as a list of their other programs, services, and resources, at www.ihs.gov.