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The Myth of the Drunken Indian

by Maxie Elizabeth Ruan, June 22, 2016

       The Drunken Indian. It’s a phrase that conjures up just one of the many stereotypical image of Native Americans: red skins smelling of liquor and stumbling out of the local bar with blood-shot eyes.

       This stereotype reflects the idea that Native Americans consume alcohol at higher rates than other races; however, a new study out of the University of Arizona (UA) directly challenges that idea by finding that Native American’s actually abstain from alcohol more than non-natives.

       According to the study, conducted by Dr. James Cunningham, Dr. Teshia Solomon and Dr. Myra Muramoto (2016) of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, “In contrast to the ‘Native American elevated alcohol consumption’ belief, Native Americans compared to whites had lower or comparable rates across the range of alcohol measures examined.”

       The idea for the study came about when the doctors were looking at alcohol services for various ethnic groups and noticed different trends than were expected.

       “We started noticing some patterns that seemed to be a bit different for American Indians versus other ethnic groups,” Cunningham said. “We realized that in order to make sense of what we were looking at, we really needed to know what the alcohol consumption rates were on average.”

       Despite estimates of these rates being reported on by the federal government, Cunningham wanted a more focused set of data.

       “There are some very nice estimates produced by the federal government but there’s not a whole lot of detail with them,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest that we are the first ones to ever come up with these estimates but I think our study is unusual in the sense that it’s more of a complete story.”

       Historically, the alcoholism rates in Native American communities have always been subject to debate and alcohol-related deaths are still prevalent in these communities despite many reservations being dry.

       According to a statement presented to the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs by Robert McSwain, Principal Deputy Director of the Indian Health Services, alcohol related deaths occur over 500 percent more frequently in Native communities than in non-Native ones. McSwain also stated that this death rate has decreased from 77.5 in 100,000 in 1979 – 1981 to 49.6 in 2007 – 2009.

       But the discussion of alcohol in Native communities goes back even further.

       The trio introduced their study with a statement about alcohol use by Native Americans from ethnologist H.R. Schoolcraft in 1847 that described the Drunken Indian stereotype.

       “It is strange how all the Indian nations, and almost every person among them, male and female, are infatuated with the love of strong drink,” the study quoted. “They know no bounds to their desire.”

       The history of alcohol in Native communities is a complex one. Alcohol for recreational use was first introduced to Native tribes in the 1700’s by French fur traders in exchange for goods.

       According to Nancy Parezo, an anthropologist at UA, alcohol was also used as a trading tactic.

       “They got everybody drunk,” Parezo said. “It was thought that if you liquor up the person in your negotiation, you were going to get a better deal.”

       Although alcohol had already existed in some Native communities in the form of Peyote or Saguaro Cactus Wine, it was always used for ceremonial purposes, not recreational. Even when used, drinkers were heavily monitored by elders.

       Despite alcohol being present in tribes prior to European contact, Parezo believes that Native Americans simply do not have the right metabolism to support the heavy binge drinking that takes place today.

       “If you have cultures that tended not to use alcohol, they wouldn’t have built up the metabolism to break it down easily,” she said. “People who aren’t used to drinking get drunk pretty quickly.”

       This lack of a metabolism likely contributes to the high death rate from alcohol use; however, the fact that many reservations are dry also plays a part.

       According to Parezo, some Native Americans have to travel off their reservation, usually the next town over, to drink. Since they are not allowed to bring alcohol back to the reservation, they drink in town and then drive home which can result in fatal car accidents.

       As for the introduction of alcohol into Native communities, Parezo stated that, “It’s simply colonialism.”

       Inspired by the historical context and the Drunken Indian stereotype, the trio of doctors set out to prove just how wrong these beliefs were.

       “[The stereotype] has to do with non-native people’s perceptions and what they think and hear without actually even knowing the truth,” Teshia Solomon said. “It leads to misinformation.”

       This misinformation doesn’t just affect the way non-Natives view Native Americans, but also the way Native Americans view themselves.

       “When you’re in that situation, that’s what you see and if you hear these other messages telling you that this how your people are, you start to believe that too,” she said. “That everyone is like that and that it’s the norm; but the data is showing us that that’s not the norm.”

       According to Cunningham, the study was based off the results of two large, independent, federal surveys. One of these surveys was a geography-based, self-administering survey in which participants were given a computer to complete it. The second survey was conducted over the telephone.

       The study observed alcohol consumption over the course of one month and used markers such as heavy drinking, binge drinking, light/moderate drinking and abstinence to interpret the data. Heavy drinking was defined as consuming more than five drinks on the same occasion spanning more than five days, while binge drinking was defined as more than five drinks on one occasion spanning less than five days.

       Light/moderate drinking was defined as consuming 1-4 drinks during a typical drinking occasion. Abstinence was refraining from drinking alcohol all together.

       As to whether these surveys were given honest answers, Cunningham said that the computer generated test promoted honest answers because there was little human interaction involved. It was hard to tell with the telephone survey how much disclosure was given.

       “The person knocking on the door wasn’t going to see the answers,” he said. “The data is coded.”

       The results of the data showed that Native Americans were more likely to abstain from alcohol and also drink less when they did than compared to Whites.

       According to the study, Whites compared to Native Americans reported substantially higher levels when drinking 1-3 drinks, while the amount of Whites and Native Americans that drank over four drinks were similarly comparable.

       Behind the numbers, figures and statistics lies the painful reality for many Natives affected by alcohol. Alcohol is often considered to be a trigger or connected to many other issues that run rampant in Indian Country, including poverty and domestic violence.

       Ashley Tsosie- Mahieu, 32, of the Navajo Nation, grew up surrounded by many family members who were hooked on alcohol, one of the most prominent ones being her father.

       “It was a lot worse back when I was growing up,” Mahieu said. “We had a really tumultuous relationship.”

       Her father, Jeff, was an alcoholic for as long as she could remember.

       “I remember growing up, my mom and I would go search for my dad at bars sometimes,” she recalled. “He’d come home super late and they’d be in fights constantly.”

       According to Mahieu, her father’s alcoholism paved the way for other forms of damaging behavior including emotional abuse, cheating on her mom and voicing physical threats.

       She described how her relationship with her dad shifted throughout her childhood.

       In the beginning, she was always on his side because he would buy her love by giving her money or other gifts, a tactic Mahieu said is common in alcoholics. But as she grew older and began to understand exactly what was going on around her, she changed her stance.

       Around the time she was 10, Mahieu’s parents began a lengthy, messy divorce.

       During the divorce, her mother filed a restraining order against her father, which led to complications due to him working at Mahieu’s school.

       “The day or the day after he was served with the restraining order he actually confronted me about it,” she said. “He was almost blaming me for it, making me feel bad for my mom getting the restraining order.”

       According to Mahieu, her father placed a lot of guilt on her and her mom daily, which she says was a result of his alcoholism. He would also often threaten people around him with physical violence.

       As a result of this emotional abuse, Mahieu began to distance herself from her father around the age of 14, where she would only see him every other weekend. She didn’t speak to him for a long time and began referring to her father as Jeff.

       Throughout the years, her father’s behavior has begun to improve.

       Mahieu described how her father admits that he feels a lot of guilt for what he’s done in the past and often apologizes for it during drunk calls.

       “He’s gotten a bit better,” she said. “We still get drunk calls from him occasionally and he continues to threaten people when he’s drunk. It’s still a thing and it still bothers me.”

       Although her father’s behavior has improved, both her and her sister are still impacted by his drinking.

       “When he comes to visit or we go to visit him we always have at least one instance where things get out of hand,” Mahieu said, hinting how many times these visits have ended in hospitals.

       According to Mahieu, her father now primarily binge drinks, though she is unsure what his drinking patterns were while she was growing up.

       Mahieu is now pursuing a doctorate in American Indian Studies from the UA, where she focuses her study on education. She plans on her writing her dissertation about Native women in education and how certain factors like poverty, domestic abuse and alcoholism, play a role in their ability to succeed.

       “[Alcohol] is definitely connected to other terrible problems like drugs and domestic violence,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to tell which comes first.”

       Mahieu’s experience with alcoholism is just one of the many thousands of others that occur daily throughout Indian Country.

       An important factor to consider when observing alcoholism in Indian Country is the historical trauma that has left its mark on Native nations today. From forced relocations, boarding schools and colonization to outright genocide, Native Americans have been continuously displaced in their homelands.

      In their study, Cunningham, Solomon, and Muramoto (2016) find that this trauma as well as other contemporary issues play a role in the alcoholism that plagues some Native communities.

       “Native Americans have been challenged by historical trauma and other stressors such as environmental pollution, poor nutrition, relatively high unemployment, educational challenges, and limited access to health care, all of which can be associate with increased disease rates,” the study said.

      Nancy Parezo also stressed the role historical trauma and poverty play in alcoholism; specifically, how people drink to forget and escape poverty. She calls this the cycle of poverty in which Native people are entrapped by a sense of hopelessness.

       “Native American communities still have the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the country,” Parezo said. “Alcoholism and things like that really are evidence of a community disease and shows alcoholism as a disease. People drink to forget.”

      While alcoholism in Native communities is the result of colonialism and various other factors, this new study refutes the belief that Native Americans consume more alcohol than non-Natives.

      Armed with this new data, Solomon and Cunningham plan on conducting further research focusing on the high rate of liver disease mortality in Native Americans. Where before this high rate was quickly dismissed and attributed to elevated levels of alcohol consumption, this new data disputes that notion.

      Solomon and Cunningham are hopeful that this study will influence the way people view Native Americans, particularly in removing the Drunken Indian stereotype.

       “One study in and of itself isn’t going to shift the world and the centuries of this belief,” Solomon said. “But hopefully with the continued research that we plan to do, we’ll really be able to build a solid case about what’s going on.”

Source cited:

Cunningham, J. K., Solomon, T. A., & Muramoto, M. L. (2016). Alcohol use among Native Americans compared to whites: Examining the veracity of the ‘Native American elevated alcohol consumption’belief. Drug and alcohol dependence, 160, 65-75. Retrieved on 6/22/ 2016 from

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