Ah yes, it’s time to finally address a foundational stereotype of the drunken Indian, hopped up on the White Man’s firewater. (Actually, in Cree it’s iskotêwâpoy, which is more like “firey liquid”.)
I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while, because I think that a lot of indigenous people struggle with the stereotype of the drunken Indian. In a linked article, I discuss the way that stereotype has affected me, personally.
What moved me to finally take the time to go through this is a recent news item involving Cree NDP Member of Parliament, Romeo Saganash. (He is the person who is the most responsible for launching this blog into the public eye btw, when he first tweeted the Attawapsikat article.) When I woke up a few mornings ago to a CBC radio report that the MP had decided to take sick leave to address an alcohol dependence, I had some very mixed feelings. On one hand, I was proud of him for owning up to the problem in a forthright manner. On the other, I felt like the incident reinforces a widely held belief about indigenous people and alcohol and I wasn’t looking forward to the backlash. These two views are also represented in the comment section of the linked article, though thankfully the positive view appears to be in the majority.
For the record, I do not feel it is appropriate to burden Romeo Saganash, or any other First Nations, Inuit or Métis person, public figure or not, with the task of ‘representing indigenous peoples in Canada’. Nonetheless this is something that many of us do in fact feel burdened with, especially when it comes to alcohol. The stereotype of the drunken Indian is such a widespread one, that it is nearly impossible to avoid it having some sort of impact. Of course, being an MP means that his conduct does matter in that context, and I’m glad he took the steps he did.
I do not want to deny the very real problems with addictions among aboriginal people. Far too many communities have high rates of alcohol and drug use and heartbreakingly high rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder among their children.
The reasons why aboriginal people have struggled with addictions, individually and collectively, have been the focus of many a report or survey through the years. The root causes are pretty well documented at this point — residential schools, the Indian Act, child welfare issues, Indian agents, geographic isolation, racism, intergenerational trauma — the list goes on.
Of course there are the racist jokes and even racist t-shirts reinforcing the stereotype.
I want to examine the stereotype and provide some of the research mentioned in the quote above. Maybe you’ll learn some things about the issue that you never knew. More importantly, I’m hoping people will be more critical minded when this stereotype is brought up.
Belief #1: Indigenous people cannot metabolise alcohol
A very common belief is that indigenous people “can’t handle their liquor” because we lack a gene that helps humans metabolise alcohol.
In the “Nature of Nurture; Fact or Fiction” section of the linked page, Matthew Kelley provides an excellent review of the various studies on the issue of a genetic intolerance to alcohol among Native Americans. Overall the research shows that Native Americans react to alcohol much like any other people.
For those of you who really like reading these kinds things, Professor Cindy Ehlers has participated in a number of studies which confirm that the variations within Native American populations mean there is no real genetic ‘weakness’ involved. An easier to read description of her findings can be found here.
There is sometimes a fatalism in regards to alcoholism among indigenous people which is in great deal linked to this idea that there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism based on an inability to metabolise alcohol as efficiently as other populations. If it’s in your genes, how can you fight it? I struggled with this belief for many years as well, and want to emphasise that it isn’t true. There are other factors involved, for sure, but this is not genetic destiny.
Belief #2: All natives are drunks
The cause of death due to alcohol use is 43.7 per 100,000 among indigenous peoples in Canada, which is twice the rate of the general population (p.25). There is no doubt that alcohol abuse in our communities is a huge problem. However, there is a fairly common belief that all native people drink.
Although getting updated statistics is difficult, a 2002/2003 First Nations Regional Longitudinal study gives us the following information:
- More First Nations adults abstain from drinking thank the general population (34.4% versus 20.7% among non-natives, p.76)
- Most First Nations adults who do drink do so less frequently than the general population. (17.8% using alcohol on a daily/weekly basis compared to 44% in the general population, males twice as likely as females to be weekly drinkers p.81)
- The proportion of heavy drinkers in First Nations adults is higher than the general Canadian population. (16% versus 6.2%)
Even among youth, reported use of alcohol is higher among non-natives (61%) than natives (54%) (p.8, year 1991). Other substance abuse rates were higher, however.
So to sum this up, more indigenous people abstain completely from alcohol than is true in the general population. Some studies suggest that aboriginal people are two times as likely to abstain completely than their non-native counterparts. Native people who do drink alcohol tend to do so less frequently than their non-native counterparts, but also tend to drink more extremely when they are consuming alcohol.
There are two extremes represented here which are important to understand. Many native people do not drink at all, and consider alcohol to be a very serious problem in our communities. Heavy drinking is more common among aboriginal drinkers than among non-natives, however.
As expressed in all of the links provided in this section, indigenous people tend to have a more negative view of the use of alcohol compared to non-natives which is no doubt linked to the damage that alcohol abuse continues to wreak on our communities.
Belief #3: Alcohol abuse is a native cultural trait
Oh, most people won’t say this openly anymore, but this belief has hardly gone the way of the dodo. As with any population, substance abuse is a complex issue. Some people do not want to accept those complexities, however, and wish to merely put it down to some sort of inherent weakness on the part of a specific population.
The history of alcohol use among native peoples in Canada is complicated. Alcohol was a mainstay of trade goods after Contact, and then for a time the sale and provision of alcohol was banned completely for the ‘protection’ of indigenous peoples, resulting in a booming and unhealthy underground trade.
The law didn’t stop or prevent Indians from drinking, but it did change the way they drank — for the worse. Since Indians were forbidden to buy liquor, they frequently resorted to drinking other far more dangerous intoxicants. More ominously, Indians also had to guzzle their beer, wine or liquor as quickly as possible to keep from being arrested.
The idea that indigenous peoples are helpless to resist the lure of alcohol, that we are genetically weak and more susceptible to it, plays into the notion of our supposed inferiority.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) has an excellent publication detailing the various factors involved in addictive behaviours among indigenous peoples in Canada. To really get a sense of the problem, you have to understand the history of colonisation in this country. While embarking on that exploration could take years, AHF does a good job of distilling down some main points as well as explaining why that history really does matter:
No other population group in Canada’s history has endured such a deliberate, comprehensive, and prolonged assault on their human rights as that of Aboriginal people. Yet, despite growing recognition of past wrongs, many Canadians remain unaware of the full scope of these injustices or their impacts.
There is nothing inherent in our cultures that makes us more likely to become alcoholics than non-natives. In fact, the most successful substance abuse prevention and treatment strategies have been those that integrate indigenous traditions and NOT external programs which pay no mind to our cultural context.
Some closing thoughts
Alcohol abuse among native peoples is not a myth…but there are some pernicious stereotypes out there that have a very real impact on the way that people regard alcohol use by native people, and also on the way we ourselves view our relationship with alcohol. Obviously these views need to be dealt with and examined, particularly among those who work with native people.
It is not helpful to claim that we are genetically weak and unable to avoid becoming dependent on alcohol, nor is it helpful to imagine that all of us have an alcohol problem or will eventually develop one. More importantly, it is not helpful to ignore our cultural and historical context in the belief that this context is unrelated.
I grew up believing a lot of these myths, and it’s taken many years to see that alcoholism is not a foregone conclusion among our people. We can take steps to prevent it, and treat it. I’m hoping that dispelling some of these stereotypes will help to keep the focus on what we can do, rather than what is supposedly out of our hands completely.