Alcohol Among Native Americans

Introduced in the early days of contact between Native Americans and European visitors, alcohol became a permanent resident in a fleeting way of life for an age-old culture.

Alcohol found its way to the Native American population of North America during early contacts between Native people and European visitors, traders and explorers who, for whatever reasons, were eager to share their intoxicating drink. And, like many other so-called civilizing influences, alcohol altered the Native American existence, culture, and way of life for many years even yet to come.

It is theorized that traders wishing to gain the upper hand in their dealings introduced alcohol, because of its effects on Native thoughts and reasoning. And, when alcohol became an expected part of trading events, Europeans often came out with the lion's share of traded goods. It wasn't long before Native Americans began to lose their hold on an age-old cherished culture, losing more and more of themselves in the process. Though alcohol was not the only factor in the declining culture, it certainly posed a significant part of the process.

Alcohol, with its addictions for the unsuspecting Natives, allowed warriors to be cheated, slaughtered, or both, all for their coveted furs. And, like the "white man's" diseases, alcohol demanded a heavy toll. Countless Natives lost their lives to alcohol and its effects, some of them spinning out of control in a downward spiral that lasted years. Alcohol became an anesthetic, numbing the heart and soul of a people who had lost their hold on a way of life that would never again be able to sustain them.

But the price of alcohol continues to be felt in today's Native American culture and everyday life. As more and more of the Native culture and heritage became lost in the modernizing effects of European colonization, many Native Americans found themselves caught in limbo between two worlds. The cultural way of life of the past was gone, but the Natives were not accepted as equal members of the new white society, either. Native Americans were forced to totally assimilate into the culture that was new, foreign and intolerable for them. If they failed to do so, they were considered as little more than objects to be placed somewhere "out of sight," so that the rest of the world could go on its modernizing journey. With little to do, and no place to call home but reservations mandated by government, many Natives turned to alcohol to numb the devastating effects of losing their identity.

As generation followed generation, and more of the culture and identity of the past was lost, newer generations of the Native population eventually found alcohol to be their only salvation. With no strong cultural heritage to lead them, and a continued lack of acceptance out in the world at large, there has been little else left them. Even if they could go back to the days of hunting buffalo and living off the land, where are the buffalo today, and what's become of the vast land that was once their cherished home?

Many Native Americans have gone on to build hopeful and positive lives for themselves, some deeply entrenched in the "white man's" world, and others regaining their hold on their culture and heritage. Life is not so bleak for many. Still, alcohol has kept its hold on others, choking out a hopeful view of any kind of a positive future.

Many changes and improvements still need to be made, to enable Native Americans the opportunity to regain their culture and heritage. But much that was lost will be lost forever, as a way of life has been lost and can never be fully regained. In reinventing themselves, reviving their culture and remembering the old ways, there is still a great need for alcohol treatment programs. But even these, alone, won't do the trick. Programs addressing other Native needs, such as employment, housing, etc., can only help re-build the Native structure, and fight the deeply felt hold of alcohol and its effects.

No one of us can ever go back to the past, but we can all work in positive ways to accept and respect other cultures, and to find ourselves in a culture and a heritage that is ours.

Alcohol, like many other detrimental elements in our society, need not gain the upper hand. And placing blame will not regain what was lost, nor will it ease the path to a better future. What was done in years gone by need not continue its devastating effects.

Finding, believing in, and respecting culture and heritage is a positive first step toward a more hopeful future for all of us.

© High Speed Ventures 2011