Alcoholism and Addiction Among Native Americans

Alcoholism and Addiction Among Native Americans

Despite the fact that no evidence exists proving Native Americans more likely to become alcoholics or higher sensitivity to the effects of alcohol, the ethnic group as a whole has lived under the cloud of the infamous “firewater myth" for centuries.

What the various studies and the rumour itself fails to take into account is the diversity of the Native American community. Each tribe holds independent views of alcohol and drugs; while some tribes, especially those in the southwest and southeast, used alcohol before the Europeans arrived, others continue to promote temperance to this day.

Is the Rumour Unfair, or Justified?

There is evidence that directly contradicts the myth, but alcoholism and addiction have plagued many Native American communities, showing that the concern is not unwarranted. Research like the 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study has proven that those in the Native American community tend to suffer from alcohol and drug addiction problems at higher rates than those who are not Native Americans. Other studies have cited low self-esteem, a failure to conform to either Western or tribal conventions, abuse and poverty all as influencing factors for high drug and alcohol consumption among Native Americans.

The results reveal that more than ten percent of all Native American and Alaska-native deaths were alcohol-induced. Other associated incidents including: liver damage, traffic accidents, suicide and homicide were all listed as additional causes of death due to severe intoxication. Of the total fatalities, more men died than women, and nearly two-thirds of the deaths represented individuals below the age of 50. 

What Are Native American Tribes Doing To Combat Drug And Alcohol Use? 

Throughout history, the federal and tribal governments have primarily addressed Native American drug and alcohol abuse with imprisonment. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the approach to substance-related crimes on reservations and within the specific community has changed.

Many tribes now use drug courts similar to those on the state level, working with convicted individuals to help them repay their community and undergo treatment following incarceration. Many tribes have also integrated cultural practices into drug and alcohol treatment and prevention programs. Tribal elders and medicine men and women engage with young people; teaching them about the history and culture of the community through activities like sweat lodge ceremonies, vision quests, pow-wows and story-telling as well as crafts like horsemanship, hunting, and fishing.

For many tribes, prevention and treatment are on the same spectrum. For example, the Native Americans who have used drugs and alcohol in the past must go through a period of sobriety before they can be welcome again at cultural events. Only following the period of sobriety can they re-enter their community and further their learning not only about their culture, but the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse.

Are Their Solutions Effective?

Studies show that learning about one’s culture and maintaining membership in the extended community are effective in preventing drug and alcohol use. Young children can attend sober events and learn the dangers of substance abuse, all while being integrated as a valued part of a community.

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