Indians in eastern North America possessed no alcohol at the beginning of the colonial period. By 1800, so much alcohol flowed through the Indian villages east of the Mississippi that each community were forced to decide to take it or not and they made a tragic choice by taking it because it destroyed their cultural. The Indians who drank did so to the point of intoxication enjoyed the experience they got from it. If Indians chose to drink out of frustration and despair, they were not alone; as social scientists have made clear, whenever Western societies undergo periods of rapid transition, rates of drinking increase.
Documentary evidence also suggests that some Indians enjoyed the heightened sense of power that seemed to accompany drunkenness. For example, some Indians in the Great Lakes regions integrated alcohol into their existing ceremonies, notably mourning rituals. Other groups recognized the importance of alcohol by including it in hospitality rituals. Recognizing alcohol’s power did not mean liking its taste.
The primary reason to drink was to get drunk. On occasion groups of Indians who did not possess enough alcohol to get everyone drunk gave their liquor to a few individuals to ensure that at least some would become intoxicated. Families also suffered, especially when young men sold the furs and skins from the hunt for alcohol, thereby impoverishing their relatives, who needed food and durable goods. Domestic violence, accidental falls into fires or cliffs, and bouts of exposure when the inebriated passed out in cold weather all contributed to the suffering of Indian communities. The “drunken Indian” has been a subject of continuing concern in the United States from the earliest contacts between Europeans and Indians down to the present day. A number of deprivations, including confinement to reservations and federal wardship, are cited as causes for many Indians to fell inadequate. Alcohol, according to this view, has been the easiest and quickest way to deaden the senses and to forget the feeling of inadequacy. The most popular beverages were cider and whiskey. Water was usually of poor quality, milk was scarce and unsafe, and coffee, tea, and wine were imported and expensive. Whiskey was widely produced because it was easily preserved and traded, and it soon became the medium of exchange on the frontier. Many Americans took small amounts of alcohol daily, either alone or with the family at home. “Drams” were taken upon rising, with meals, during midday breaks, and at bedtime. Ingesting frequent but small doses develops a tolerance to the effects of alcohol, and this style of drinking did not generally lead to intoxication. The other style of drinking was the communal binge, a form of public drinking to intoxication, and practically any gathering of three or more men provided an occasion for drinking vast quantities of liquor. Yet most of these drinkers became abstinent by the time they were thirty-five or forty years old age, a circumstance one would not expect if they had been addicted to alcohol. To explain, it involves the typical style of drinking that takes place in Indian communities. Not only did the Indians learn the binge style of drinking from observing those who introduced liquor to them, they also found the white man’s notion that a man was not responsible for actions committed while intoxicated consonant with their own notions of possession by supernatural agents. In towns bordering the reservation, drinker may be arrested or wake up after drinking with no money. Social and legal prohibitions against drinking, the absence of a ready supply, and the fact that Indians who drink in public or in bars in off-reservation border towns are often arrested all help sudden withdrawal and, in consequence, a high incidence of hallucinatory experiences. Drinking on Indians reservations, however, continued largely unchanged due to their relative isolation from the larger society. Today we are told that Indians and Alaska Natives die from alcoholism at almost five times the overall rate for the nation. (something, 17) Such statistics not only give cause for concern but also shape how the problem of Indian drinking is perceived. Many believe that homicide, suicide, and accidents are strongly associated with alcohol, deaths from these related causes are often put together with deaths directly the result of drinking, such as alcoholic cirrhosis. Today the southern states along with those of the Rocky Mountain West have relatively high rates of death from what have come to be thought of as alcohol-related causes, a circumstance often attributed to our frontier heritage. In the twenty-one northern states the death rate was forty-five per hundred thousand population, during the 1980. Now it’s sixty-six deaths, a rate nearly fifty percent higher. Western Indians live almost entirely in rural areas and may be expected to have death rates from alcohol related causes more in line with those of the rural populations of the states in which they live. The Indians have a good environment and yet their death rate is higher than people living in a bad environment are.
The highest suicide rates are found among American Indians. Not only do American Indian males commit suicide at rates almost twice that of other racial groups, the rates increase with age far more dramatically than those of other groups. The social, cultural, or religious stigma attached to suicide, the belief that insurance might be waived, and the difficultly in determining whether some accidents are actually accidents or suicides, and the desire to avoid publicity have resulted in both the intentional and the unintentional under-reporting of suicides. Estimates of the under-reporting have been as high as eighty percent.
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