The stereotype of the drunken Indian

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.

Romeo Saganash, James Bay Cree MP, has taken sick leave to deal with an alcohol dependence.

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.

The stereotype itself is not as ubiquitous and damaging as it once was.  This article from 2008 (by Katherine Walker who for some reason is not attributed) does a good job of examining the issue:

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.

A shop withdrew these t-shirts after a complaint to a Human Rights Commission.

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.

As the historian Brian Maracle (1993: 44–45) writes:

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.


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29 Responses to The stereotype of the drunken Indian

  1. Sharon Jackson says:

    Thank you for this. To be very honest, I sort of thought along the lines of #1, but was uncertain, so I did learn something here. But I never, ever believed #2 or #3.

    In my life I have met FAR more drunken “non-Indians.”

    And finally, thanks for your elegant use of the word “pernicious.” One of my personal favourites.

    • Kiaayohkats says:

      I have felt similarly about issue one. It was only when I wondered what the gene was that I started to look into it. What I found was that, in fact, there was no evidence of such a gene, as far as any studies could tell. It was quite a [pleasant] surprise for me.

      As for 2 and 3, that was one thing that always struck me as odd growing up. Despite everything I heard growing up about Aboriginal peoples and alcoholism, all the alcoholics and heavy drinkers in my family were on my German grandfather’s side. For my other three grandparents (all Métis), as well as with my aunts’ families (Stoney and Blackfoot), alcohol abuse was somewhere between negligible and non-existent. This was a disconnect that caused me a lot of confusion as a youth.

      My great-grandfather once said to me, “You have to be very careful drinking alcohol, because according to the white man, if he drinks, he’s just enjoying himself; if you drink, you’re just another Indian.” Stereotypes tend to be rooted in anecdotal evidence rather than facts. In this case we see that seeing even one Aboriginal person drunk is enough reinforce the stereotype of the “Drunken Indian” regardless of how prevalent such behavior actually isn’t.

  2. Chantal says:

    Hi, my name is Chantal, I am from the Wendat tribe, I am a drug and substance abuse counselor. I want to comment on the picture with the t-shirts. Funny 2 months ago, I played music at a party and someone had a similar t-shirt that said “my indian name is:… ” I can’t remember the exact phrase but it was about drinking, and the guy was wearing it, and he liked to drink and party obviously, may be he was not alcoholic or may be he was but I laughed when I saw it, it was funnier than what those t-shirts say. I knew it was a joke, he was laughing about himself drinking, that it is his indian name, and it was a party. And never I made a connection in my head that it is laughing about American Indians and drinking problems. And I am sensitive to those problems but I can understand things. I know people who suffer from feeling attacked when they are not being attacked.

  3. Cynthia Preston says:

    As a teenager I worked in a Market square chip wagon in Brantford we had an incident where we were well behind in our french fries because of a sudden lunch rush and there was at about a five to ten minute wait for fries, One of those in the line was a huge native fellow who lost it and put his fist through the window. Being only teenagers we made the assumption that he had been drinking after all why would anyone carry on so and put his fist through the window.. Looking back all these years later I believe he wasn’t drunk at all. Now I believe he was diabetic and was seeing the fastests way to raise his blood sugar get a carton of fries. Too often the drunken stereo type is just that a stereo type. the symptoms of too much drink have much in common with insulin imbalance of diabetes which is rife in the native community. I have been delighted to hear about several native communities in BC where they are tackling the diabetes problem by reverting to a more whole food diet incorporating not just traditional native foods, but good whole foods available in season in every grocery store.
    Let us not forget when we see the ‘drunk’ on the street, he/she may not be drunk they may in fact need a balanced meal, a glass of OJ to help them with glucose lows. If you don’t smell alcohol and some seems to be acting drunk ASK “are you diabetic?” do you need to check your insulin?” do you need to eat something?

    • traci_wpg says:

      Diabetes? I doubt it, the guy was an a**hole, drunk or not. People with diabetes do not smash windows to get their food (I am Aboriginal and have alot of family with diabetes issues, no one has EVER done anything as stupid as this).

      • Fair enough, but as a borderline diabetic I do know that when your sugar is low, it is a lot like being drunk…only not happy drunk. My temper becomes shorter than short, I shake and feel weak, I have trouble speaking well, and if I don’t boost my sugar quickly, I come close to passing out. I manage my hypoglycemia by eating properly most of the time, but I’ve seen people with diabetes, native and non, who when their sugar crashes, will slur and swear and become confused. That does not in any way justify what this guy did, but some of the severe symptoms of poorly managed diabetes can and do look an awful lot like someone who is drunk.

  4. Joe ManyHorses says:

    At the age of 9 I decided to never drink alcohol..I am in my 50’s now,I am a medical doctor and am proud to say, that making that decision was a difficult one but it was the best one I ever made.
    What society doesn’;t realize is that Native americans cannot assimilate alcohol the way other races do.
    We lack a specific enzyme in the body .It is 10 times more potent because of this and actually effects the native person much the way that heroin effects other races,The average mortality rate for a drinking indian is 42 years of age… lower than most 3rd world countries. Alcohol is an instant addiction for native americans.
    Most tribal nations are now aware of this, we are educating our young to abstain from this poison..

    • This article specifically refutes that genetic myth, with links to evidence. Alcohol has wreaked much damage in our communities…but it is not like heroin, and native americans do not in fact lack a specific enzyme in the body which metabolises alcohol.

    • martina says:

      didn’t you just read the article?? geez. please don’t use “we” leave me out of your “we”.

  5. Roxane says:

    I am continually impressed (and thankful) for you blogs, keep up the great work!

  6. traci_wpg says:

    I am Aboriginal and started drinking when I was around 15 or so. I still drink and have never been in trouble with the law, or in an accident, or anything bad other than a hang over the next day. I know alot of Aboriginal people who also drink and they are also responsible people who hold down jobs, are educated, are home owners, community leaders, raise families, have never been in trouble with the law, and are not the “drunken” stereotype. They drink in social settings and it’s actually quite fun. From what I have seen with 80% of abstainers for the most part are those people who either were alcoholics who lost everything (family, jobs, were in jail because of their drinking, etc), so they they now preach sobriety ad naseaum, and people who drink (like me) are EVIL. Like ex smokers they are the most strident in their oppossition to anyone else enjoying a legal intoxicant.

  7. Well said. Thanks for such insightful writing. As a Canadian of South Asian heritage, I myself try and debunk negative stereotypes around my community. What I find ridiculous is that all cultures (except for White identity) are measured against an imaginary “mainstream” normal. So except for the so-called mainstream, everyone else has to live with a stereotype. And thanks to the media for regularly reinforcing such baseless stereotypes. In fact, today, I wrote a piece busting “myths” around South Asian community in Canada:
    Thx. Will be following your posts.

    • janet ramos says:

      Thank you ..As my sister & i discussed Mike & Mollys show i do not know one Native who owns a bar & dwntwn MPLS there are hundreds of bars filled with Eoropean Whitrs and probably not even ONE NATIVE and all those drunk Whites ..GmbH

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  9. Rob Froese says:

    Edit: I get the sense you only read the title of this article.

  10. Mike says:

    What exactly is a borderline diabetic?

  11. janet ramos says:

    As i was watching tv Monday nite Mike and Molly i was shocked when his mother said she did not want to move to ARIZONA there is nothing but DRUNKEN INDIANS i almost fell out of my chair i am very upset with CBS & the show shame on them they have lost this Native woman & my family

  12. Robert says:

    Very interesting, but I do still think that we do not assimilate Alcohol well. Not because of a gene and/or a lack of one or more, but because our body did not adapt to Alcohol since we just drink it from between 500 to 100 years ago but the Whites do it from a very long time. But mostly we do drink because all the shit Whites have given us to destroy us.

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  14. Jour says:

    Edit: gross link to an unbelievably racist website, no thanks.

  15. fem_progress says:

    How many times diabetic people have been confused for drunks? (Even the breath.) Some have died because of this (one Native man died in a waiting room in a hospital, he was already an amputee 🙁 ). At least I was warned about this in my fist aid classes. I bet it is not widespread, though. It should.

    I thought it was because we settlers started drinking long ago and our system adapted to it over time, not because you have a bad gene. Yet though my assumption was not racist, it was wrong. I stand corrected. Thanks for putting this info together. It has become useful again with the incident of the racist lodge booklet.

  16. John Meech says:

    Thank you for this well-written and well-researched article. It has opened up my eyes to a stereo-type idea I had developed about Aboriginal people. It is amazing how these ideas develop out of incorrect cause and effect observations.

  17. George Carr says:

    The data you provide suggests that many native people make a determined effort not to consume alcohol because they are aware that there might be some “undefined reason” why they might not be able to easily control their usage.
    One of my favorite kids is a beautiful (personally, intellectually, and physically) native girl who was adopted on account of fetal alcohol disorder syndrome circumstances. I’ve got my fingers crossed that, with the excellent parenting she is receiving, she will reach her full potential as an adult.

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  20. Carole bunyak says:

    I was interested to read this article because many, many years ago, more than 60, I lived in Vancouver and the term “drunken Indian” was commonly tossed about. As I grew up I heard about the “enzyme” that indigenous people had that caused them to not be able to handle alcohol. This seemed to make sense to me in some way. I guess, I thought ,these aren’t people of weak or bad character they have a disease. Then I forgot about it all, life, work, family took over. Lately, however, I’ve been shocked to hear about residential schools, not how they treated people in the early1900’s my own mother was a victim of religious molestation by a priest at that time. Rather, that these schools and their horrific treatment of children continued during my adult life!
    And …I have been thinking about alcoholism in its many forms. I now know poverty, hopelessness, lack of opportunity , poor schools,lack of access to libraries, sports, entertainment ,etc are the cause of alcoholism. And that My society has played a part in that. Then I remembered about that enzyme theory and wondered if it was true. and so I read your article.
    I certainly was never an intentional racist, never knowingly did a hurtful thing to anyone, but I guess ignorance is not an excuse.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that articles like yours and others that I’ve read in the newspapers or heard on other media make a difference and change is happening

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