The violent impact of white settlement and Christianity manifests itself in weird and deep ways—some people call these impacts “colonialism.” Fancy word. In any event, those impacts are so deep that we oftentimes think that those ways are ours—but they’re not our ways. As Ruben Littlehead says, they are “Old Indian tricks…that a white guy taught us.” One of those topics is the way Native people react to alcohol.
Both of my parents (really, all three of my parents—I was also raised by a stepfather) struggled with alcohol and addiction.
Probably as a result of their struggles (and my grandparents’ struggles before them), they had a pretty protestant view of drinking alcohol. “Don’t do it.” “It’s bad for Indian people.” “We’re not meant to drink alcohol—it kills us.” They treated alcohol like a sin, like something that stains you.
Now, I accepted these as true statements for many years. In fact, I still have never been a drinker of alcohol as a result of this training at an early age, combined with seeing the effects of alcohol on my family. My family had my best interests when they told me these things and these statements weren’t entirely untrue…alcohol can, in fact, kill.
But…lots of things “kill.” Sugar kills. Not wearing your seatbelt kills. Heck, life kills—after all, life is a terminal condition right?
And true, alcohol doesn’t necessarily correspond to Native people’s biochemistry. Native people have only been eating wheat products for a VERY short period of time; most tribes farmed corn, squash, etc. Very few (if any) farmed wheat. Therefore, many Indian people with a high percentage of Indigenous blood are prone to wheat/gluten intolerance (of course there are many enrolled Indians whose blood is primarily white, and Europeans have farmed wheat for many centuries increasing their tolerance to alcohol). That unfamiliarity with alcohol oftentimes leads Native people (and anybody else who is intolerant to wheat) to be allergic to alcohol. How can you tell if someone’s allergic to alcohol? Like most allergies, alcohol allergies causes swelling and redness-therefore, if you (or one of your loved ones) get a red nose or a swollen nose or your cheeks get red when you drink, chances are you (or your loved one) is allergic to alcohol.
No Beer Sold To Indians, 1938 photograph in Sisseton, South Dakota by John Vachon. Source: authentichistory.com.
Therefore, my dear mom and dad’s claims that “We’re not meant to drink alcohol” and that it is “bad for Indian people” are technically correct. But it’s not the whole story. They’re little white lies.
See, Native people aren’t meant to drink alcohol in the same way we’re not meant to eat Twinkies (RIP), eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (even with bannock bread), or drink Cragmont pop. Our ancestors were extremely healthy, and the junk we eat now simply clashes with thousands of years of healthy living (the journal Current Anthropology says that Native civilizations lived on a diet very high in fiber, very low in fat and dominated by foods extremely low on the glycemic index). Our bodies don’t process any of these refined sugars easily. To read more about that, see the ScienceDaily story "Feces Fossils Show Connection Between Native-Americans, Diabetes: Did Fat-Hoarding Genes Develop from the Nature of Ancient Feasts?"
All of those things are bad for Indian people. But we don’t treat all of them like a sin as we do alcohol. To be sure, there is a spiritual component to alcohol abuse—but there is also a similar spiritual component to whenever we abuse ourselves by alcoholism, obesity, drug abuse, sex addiction, deadbeat daddy-ism, or any compulsive behavior!
It’s not just alcohol.
Mass-produced Souvenir Alcohol Flask: Cherokee Indian Reservation, NC, 1950s or 1960s. Source: authentichistory.com
I’ve been watching, with great interest and mixed feelings, the big decision that the Oglala Sioux Tribe is facing: whether or not to legalize liquor sales on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It’s a tough question—on one hand, we know that Native communities have very, very serious issues with liquor. Why would we give more poison to a sick person? On the other hand, we have the dirty, filthy rednecks in Whiteclay, Nebraska who have been exploiting the Natives on Pine Ridge for a very long time, selling them poison and getting very rich in the process. Why would we want to make these evil exploiters any richer?
They decided to legalize alcohol sales. They effectively cut the legs out from under the bloodsuckers in Whiteclay.
That was the easy part—they don’t want to make the Whiteclay gang any richer. Those vampires hate Indians and have done their little part to contribute to the extermination of Native people. The Oglala Sioux Tribe successfully took a lot of money out of these pieces of feces’ pockets by legalizing liquor sales.
But the Oglala Sioux Tribe decision to allow alcohol sales didn’t stop there. The decision also challenged those violent impacts of white settlement and Christianity that have replaced our values; they challenged colonialism. The Oglala Sioux Tribe decided to get rid of the assumption that Native people aren’t smartenough or strong enough to make our own decisions about whether or not we will choose to indulge in alcohol or not. We are smart enough. We are strong enough. Some will continue to make bad decisions—that is unfortunate. But the Oglala Sioux Tribe showed that it champions tribal sovereignty as well as individual sovereignty—the ability of individual members to make their own decisions and be treated like an adult.
Almost as importantly, the Oglala Sioux Tribe stopped treating alcoholism like a sin and started treating it like a disease. That is important. Sins stain. Sins create guilt. Sins mean that God’s mad at you. Once God’s mad at you, who knows when he’ll start being your friend again. God being mad at you can’t be good for someone trying to do better. On the other hand, diseases are treatable. Diseases need acknowledgment and get better the more honest discussions that you have about it and programs that you create to help those suffering from it. Diseases remove victimhood—there are no victims because the individual has the responsibility to seek treatment.
Diseases are not something to hide—they’re something to acknowledge and work through.
Good job, Oglala Sioux Tribe. It wasn’t an easy decision—it’s a horribly difficult and painful decision with real consequences. This decision won’t make things better overnight—not even close. In fact, things might look worse in the short-term, while the Tribe gets accustomed to easy access to liquor. But that is what leadership is about—making tough decisions for the LONG-TERM benefit of your people.