How has alcoholism been continuously perpetuated in Native American culture and how can it be combatted?

The Myth of the “Drunken Indian”

Perhaps the most degrading image to be associated with any culture is that of the “Drunken Indian” which is an image derived from the mass amounts of alcoholism and alcohol related deaths amongst the Native American population. For decades, alcohol has been blamed as the leading cause of their loss of land, culture, and independence as a people. The native Americans are portrayed as being unable to control their drinking urges therefore ruining their own lives and culture. 

Despite only making up 1.7% of the U.S. population, Native Americans experience substance abuse and addiction at much higher rates than other ethnic groups.

Another myth is that Native Americans are genetically inferior, making them unable to “hold their liquor” as well as other races despite there being very little evidence to back up this claim. 

The Truth Behind The Myth

While it may be true that Native Americans have a disproportionate amount of substance abuse despite their small numbers, the cause is not due to genetics nor an inability to control themselves. The reason actually stems from over a century of exploitation and trauma.

In the 1800s, European colonialist introduced alcohol such as rum to Native Americans in exchange for animal skins or for the purpose of diplomacy. Although Native Americans had experiences with substances like tobacco, they did, at first, have trouble keeping up with the colonists when it came to drinking. This led to public drunkenness amongst Native Americans to become more common as they had not yet established what would be considered normal levels of intoxication. This led to the colonists, who already viewed Native Americans as inferior, to associate public drunkenness and indecency with Native American culture as a whole despite it not being uncommon amongst themselves. 

“At one point in time we were a proud nation. Through genocide tactics… taking our land… giving us rations… giving us handouts they made us dependent. We look for something else. We look for alcohol. We look for drugs. Some way to get away from that reality.”

– Lieutenant Jason Lone Hill of Oglala Sioux Tribe Police

However, The introduction of liquor by white colonists has been proven not to be a cause of substance abuse problems, for other kinds of addictions such as gambling addictions were still rampant in areas where colonists did not introduce liquor. In fact, drinking did not become a real problem until the 20th century after Native Americans faced mass poverty and devastation of their culture as they were forced from their lands.

This trauma has put a significant amount of stress on these people which is continually perpetuated and exploited through each generation. With certain beer companies and businesses specifically targeting a people who have already faced generations of trauma and poverty, it is no wonder there is a disproportionate amount of Native Americans who consume alcohol and experience the effects of alcohol related crimes and diseases more than the American population on average. 

White Clay, a town that sits on the border of South Dakota with a population of only 14,  had 4 liquor stores owned by families in Nebraska which sold over 4 million cans of beer a year almost exclusively to the residents on Pine Ridge for decades where the selling of alcohol is prohibited. Its closure, albeit temporary, was viewed as a victory against white oppression which was perpetrated through exploitation of the Lakota Sioux people through substance abuse. 

With Pine ridge being one of the poorest communities in America while already living on land desolate land that is unsuitable for living, it’s clear that the myth of the “Drunken Indian” and how Native American’s are simply predisposed to alcoholism and substance abuse is just a cover up for the retraumatization and addiction Native Americans have been struggling against for years.

My Response

In response to White Clay’s exploitation of their people, The Oglala Sioux Tribe sought 5 million dollars in damages from beer companies and the liquor stores in White Clay for selling alcohol in an quantity that is much too large where it is illegal to even have traces of Alcohol in one’s system. Money that would be used to fund rehab centers for their people.

Spread Awareness!

This is an issue that exists all around us, however, it is heavily stigmatized issue and swept under the rug. Educating others and dispelling these myths is already a step towards stopping further exploitation. This is also a good way to build with yourself and others empathy for a culture you or many others may not fully understand. 


Rehab centers like The Native American Rehabilitation Association needs YOUR help! By Donating to them, you ensure that Native Americans can have access to resources that can assist with their mental health, physical health, and other daily needs. You can use this link to find their facilities closest to you! Donating to other Native American organizations such as The American Indian College Fund, Native American Heritage Association, The Native American Rights Fund in order to assist Native Americans in their legal ventures and promote the financial security of Indian tribes. 

Comments and Feedback

These are the questions I would like to be considered in the comments below. Thank you kindly in advanced for your careful consideration of this topic!

  • Is this an issue you are at all familiar with? Have you heard about it in the media or in school-related content?
  • What do you believe could be the best way to spread awareness on this topic?
  • Some may argue that what happened between Pine Ridge Reservation and White Clay was not exploitation and just simple capitalism, otherwise known as a, “There will be a supply if there is a demand” mentality. Do you think this is a harmful mentality to have especially when dealing with higher risk communities? Why or why not?
  • Alcohol consumption in general has become a socially acceptable topic despite it’s alarming risks. Do you believe the business practices of beer companies should be under fire not just for their exploitation of Native Americans, but there exploitation of all consumers? Should alcohol be treated similar to cigarettes and come with a warning label or have limitations to how it can be advertised?

If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask! I would be happy to give you links to where you can show your support or further inform you on this topic!

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