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What’s Behind the Myth of Native American Alcoholism?

The myth about American Indian predisposition to alcoholism is as false as saying that white people are naturally predisposed to alcoholism.

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker


Fur traders doing business with Native Americans in 1777, with a barrel of rum to the left. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Indians Are Naturally Predisposed to Alcoholism.”

Few images of Native peoples have been as intractable and damaging as the trope of the drunken Indian. It has been used to insidiously and overtly support the claims of Indian inferiority that, as we have seen, have been deployed in a host of ways that result in loss of culture, land, and sovereignty.

The trope is deeply woven into American social narratives — perpetuated both in popular culture and in scholarly circles — and it plays out in a number of ways. For instance, the drunken Indian male (a version of the degraded Indian) is often seen as morally deficient because of his inability to control himself, making him a menace to society. Or he has become alcoholic because of his tragic inability to adjust to the modern world — he is the Indian stuck between two worlds, and he is pitied. More recent explanations of Indian alcoholism hold that it is genetically inherited. Regardless of the prevailing stereotype, the underlying logic is that Indians are somehow predisposed to addictive drinking, more so than non-Native people, who, naturally, can “hold their liquor.”

Europeans introduced alcohol to American Indians as an instrument of trade and diplomacy. By the time the Great Plains were being settled by Europeans, virtually all treaty negotiations included complex and subtle uses of alcohol, and alcohol even became a bargaining chip. But it is well known that Indians were no strangers to consciousness-altering practices. Plants such as datura, peyote, and tobacco were widely used in questing for visions and spiritual knowledge. Don Coyhis and William White noted that some Southwestern tribes used not only psychoactive plants ceremonially, but also ritualistically used alcohol made from fermented plants long before European contact.

Some have observed that Native forms of alcohol were weak compared to the Europeans’ distilled spirits. They further point out that white settlers and military personnel on the frontiers were notorious for their extreme drinking. Indians would have learned and emulated the extreme social drinking of whites and had little time to develop their own rules and protocols for socially acceptable alcohol consumption. But because Indians were commonly viewed as inferior to begin with, Indian antisocial drunken behavior was particularly demonized, and as John Frank, Roland Moore, and Genevieve Ames suggest, historical written accounts about Indian drinking must be seen in this light. Although abstinence by entire tribal groups was not uncommon, tribal and colonial authorities attempted bans on alcohol trade in Indian territories, which were largely ineffective in groups that did drink. Also ineffective was legislation outlawing the sale of alcohol to Indians, a law first passed by Congress in 1832 and not repealed until 1953.

Studies on American Indian drinking behavior didn’t begin surfacing until the second half of the 20th century. Conventional wisdom held that Native contact with alcohol led to “instant personal and cultural devastation,” but a landmark study in 1969 by MacAndrew and Edgerton and subsequent studies began challenging those beliefs. In a 1971 study, anthropologist Nancy Oestreich Lurie hypothesized that drinking at some point became a way for Indians to validate and assert their Indianness in the face of negative stereotypes such as the disappearing Native. Lurie argued that Indian drinking was “the world’s longest ongoing protest demonstration.” Similarly, Frank, Moore, and Ames argued that the influence of alcohol resulted in a culture of drinking in Indian country, characterized as group-oriented and uncontrolled, among other things. These studies frequently emphasized the sociohistorical roles alcohol has played in Indian drinking.

Few images of Native peoples have been as intractable and damaging as the trope of the drunken Indian.

Understanding Indian alcohol use in the context of colonial history works to deconstruct the stereotypes that stigmatize Indians as predisposed to alcoholism compared to other populations. The myth about Native American predisposition to alcoholism is accompanied by numerous other related misconceptions about Native Americans and alcohol, as the work of Phillip A. May has shown. Not only do the misconceptions spring from bigoted historical tropes. They also, as May suggests, stem from flawed research and misconstrued results. The most controversial is the biological determinist position that alcoholism is genetic. May argues that this is based solely on one study that reported that Indians metabolize alcohol more slowly than non-Indians, a study that was later criticized as highly flawed. As May writes:

Major reviews of alcohol metabolism among all ethnic groups usually conclude that alcohol metabolism and alcohol genetics are traits of individuals and that there is more variation within an ethnic group than there is between ethnic groups. Further, when biophysiologic investigators attempt to explain major alcohol-related behaviors, they generally point to sociocultural variables as the major factors.

Since May’s 1994 study on the epidemiology of American Indian alcohol use (in which he refutes the idea of genetic inheritance), no research has conclusively confirmed the theory. It’s true that research has exposed deeply troubling statistics regarding alcohol use in Indian country, but, as May wrote, the common myths and misunderstandings stem from gross oversimplifications. Researchers do seek to understand things like the disproportionately high rates of alcohol-related deaths among the American Indian population. An oft-cited study by the Indian Health Service in the mid-1980s, for instance, determined that, on average, Indians die more frequently of alcohol-related causes than non-Indians. Indian deaths in alcohol-related car and other accidents were found to be three to four times higher than non-Natives; Indian suicide was found to be one and a half to two times higher; Indian deaths due to homicide were found to be roughly two times higher; and Indian deaths due to alcoholism were found to be five and a half to seven and a half times higher.

These realities can be explained, May says, in three ways. First, the differences can be accounted for by demographic, social, and political differences experienced by American Indians. Demographically, the American Indian population is relatively young (in 1988 the median age was 32.3), and younger populations overall tend to have much higher rates of alcohol-related death. Sociopolitical considerations such as low socioeconomic status also exacerbate alcohol-related problems. Second, American Indian drinking styles tend to be more flamboyant, characterized by abusive drinking (such as binge drinking) and high blood alcohol levels. Third, the mixing of alcohol impairment with risky behaviors and risky environments further contributes to higher mortality rates. Most Indian people still live in rural Western states where higher death rates can also be expected due to higher-risk environments, greater distances from care facilities, and lack of availability of services.


(Photo: Beacon Press)

It should be emphasized that, while we can think of many of these factors as behavioral, none of them automatically indicate defined patterns of addictive drinking. As May argues, there is a distinction to be made between alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Furthermore, even in light of the alarming statistics on alcohol-related death in Indian country, it would be inaccurate to say that alcoholism is the leading cause of death among American Indians.

Another factor May analyzes has to do with the prevalence of drinking among American Indians, that is, how pervasive problem drinking is throughout Indian country. Despite the stereotypical understanding that the vast majority of Native American people drink, the facts are quite different. May clarified that there were few extant prevalence studies, but certain facts stand out from the few that do exist. First of all, prevalence varies widely from tribe to tribe. In some groups, prevalence is lower than the United States general averages, while in others it is about the same or higher.

The studies also indicate that these averages can and do change over time, either becoming higher or lower. And while findings confirm that, among Native American adults who do drink, there is a substantially higher prevalence of problem and excessive drinking than among the whole U.S. population, more positive findings conclude that, among American Indian males who are middle-aged and older, more completely quit drinking than among most other groups of American males, and in virtually every tribal group a lower proportion of women drink. May stresses: “The overall prevalence of drinking among Indians is not the most important variable in the epidemiology of drinking. What is more important are the drinking styles, some of which emphasize very problematic behaviors.”

There is another crucial line of analysis scholars take when studying alcohol use in Indian country that questions the context from which most research emerges. In their groundbreaking book Native American Postcolonial Psychology, Duran and Duran draw from critical social sciences scholarship and point out that the medicalization of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems presents certain other conceptual problems in how the phenomenon is framed. In their view, alcoholism and alcohol abuse are social problems, and medicalizing them means that standards of an ideal and presumably neutral subject are created, against which all others are measured. The flaw is that those standards are inevitably based on the norms of a middle classdominant white culture.

“The focus of research has too often been the individual and his/her maladaptive adjustments to life in the late twentieth century,” they write. In this model the Native problem drinker or alcoholic is seen as pathological when his or her alcohol abuse is determined to stem from an inability to adjust to mainstream society. In this framework Native cultural inferiority is once again reinforced. For Duran and Duran this logic extends beyond alcohol-related problems and more broadly into mental health care in the Indian community. They write that:

[I]n addition to alcohol-related problems, many of the well-intentioned researchers find deviance and powerlessness in their investigations of Indian life-styles and subjectivity. In addition, these findings, as in the case of the Indian alcoholic, conversely construct an objective norm — the approximation of which measures health. The problem for native peoples is that this norm looks surprisingly like an idealized European American cultural life-style and worldview.

They also point out that, when some of these well-intentioned researchers posit a lack of socialization into either Indian or Western culture, they fall prey “to a static view of culture and disavow the changing contingent nature of postmodern society” and risk problematically constructing a monolithic pan-Indian person who lacks the specificity of a tribal identity. In other words, it is a mistake to lump all Indian people together as a single group when applying theories of alcohol abuse in Indian country.

From Duran and Duran’s perspective, the topic of alcohol-related behavior in Indian country is too frequently viewed outside of historical context, allowing definitions that mask the issues of domination and subjugation. They even go so far as to say that “what is not recognized is that alcohol use and even suicide may be functional behavior adaptations within a hostile and hopeless social context.”

As morbid as it might sound, their point is that these responses can be seen as rational — as opposed to pathological — behavior, given the historical circumstances. It also opens the space to acknowledge the role of alcohol abuse of historical trauma, a subject that is gaining greater attention in mental health care within Indian country. Likewise the roles of historical loss and discrimination ought to be considered relative to alcohol abuse. Duran and Duran advocate for a “postcolonial history of alcohol” that situates a discussion of alcohol-related problems within a colonial discourse and recognizes the long history of culturally based responses to alcohol abuse within Indian nations.

The myth about American Indian predisposition to alcoholism is as false as saying that white people are naturally predisposed to alcoholism. To even suggest that Indians are simply more prone to alcohol abuse than non-Natives implicitly makes assumptions about the superiority of the dominant white society and thus the inferiority of Native peoples. It ignores a complex array of variables that must be considered in assessing alcohol abuse in Indian country.

Adapted from All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.