Indians and Alcohol

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INDIANS AND ALCOHOL. Most of the indigenous peoples of North America possessed no alcohol before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Only the Native peoples of the modern-day southwestern United States and Mexico consumed alcohol in any form. Thus, the majority of Native Americans were exposed to alcohol at the same time that they had to cope with the far-reaching changes in their lives brought about by European colonization. The enduring stereotype of the "drunken Indian" suggests a common belief that Indians have suffered more than others from liquor.

Before European Contact

The peoples who possessed alcohol before 1492 used fermented beverages only in specific rituals. The Tepehuanes and Tarahumaras, who inhabited territory in modern-day northern Mexico, fermented corn to produce tesvino, which they consumed at ceremonies to mark important stages in an individual's life, such as the passage to adulthood. The belief in the sacred potential of alcohol survived for centuries. In modern times, these indigenous peoples began to offer some of their alcohol to Jesus before they drank. The Pimas and Papagos, who continue to inhabit traditional lands in the southwestern United States, extracted an intoxicating juice from saguaro cactus. They drank in a ritual designed to appease the divine forces that brought rain to their often-arid world. Believing the amount of rain in a year depended on the amount of the cactus liquor they consumed during a specific ritual, they often drank to the point of drunkenness. The Aztecs of Mexico drank pulque, which they fermented from the maguey. Like other indigenous peoples, they believed alcohol had sacred force, that whoever drank it gained access to divine powers. As a result, the Aztecs created elaborate rules for when alcohol could be consumed and who could drink it. If someone drank at an illegal time or if someone who did not have the right to drink it consumed alcohol, the punishment was death. By contrast, the Mayas, who fermented balche from bark and honey, allowed more widespread consumption of alcohol though still within set limits. In Maya society drinking balche on certain days allowed macehuales (commoners) to express their emotions freely and thus relieve potential tension that might otherwise exist between them and the principales, who controlled the resources of the society. For the Mayas, consumption of balche remained a fixture of holidays long after the Spanish arrived.

European Influences

Although these peoples possessed alcohol and established rules for its consumption before Europeans arrived, colonization altered drinking patterns. The Spanish created facilities to produce aguardiente (burning water), thereby expanding the amount of alcohol available. Soon, drinking became more widespread and was no longer confined to set holidays. The increase in the amount of drinking contributed to an increase in social pathologies, such as violence within communities, though scholars believe Native peoples' prior experience with alcohol enabled them to exert some control over the potentially most devastating threats posed by liquor.

In other parts of North America, most of modern-day United States and Canada, liquor first arrived when Europeans landed, but the trade did not start at the dawn of the colonial period. Although some Europeans no doubt offered Native Americans alcohol when they met, possibly in gestures meant to solidify nascent alliances, the real trade in alcohol did not begin until the midseventeenth century, when British and French colonists recognized that sugar produced in the West Indies could be distilled in the Western Hemisphere and sold as liquor in North America. From 1650 onward, alcohol became a common item in the fur trade. Native Americans who had developed a taste for alcohol purchased rum from the English and brandy from the French. The trade had particular importance for the English, because North American colonists and American Indians had a greater fondness for rum than Europeans. In fact, colonists consumed far more alcohol than Native Americans—perhaps seven shots of distilled beverages each day by 1770 according to one estimate. But whatever social pathologies they suffered did not undermine their society, and thus no widespread movement for temperance took hold during the colonial period.

As soon as the liquor trade began, colonists came to believe that it created havoc in Native communities. They were right. Indigenous and colonial observers reported that Native Americans who consumed alcohol did so only to become intoxicated. Those who became drunk fought with each other and with members of their families; they eroded the civility that normally characterized relations in indigenous communities; they fell into fires or off cliffs or drowned; and they at times murdered others, thereby opening raw wounds that communities struggled to heal. Not all Indians drank, and surviving records suggest that those most likely to drink to drunkenness and then engage in some form of social pathology were young men, though ample examples of women and the elderly drinking exist as well. Since young men were the community members who often had control of the furs or skins taken during the hunting season, their desire for alcohol had devastating consequences when some of them chose to exchange the rewards of their annual hunt for liquor, which they drank quickly. As a result, poverty became more widespread, thereby diminishing indigenous peoples' efforts to cope with the threats to their cultural, spiritual, and economic existence brought by colonists.

Over time, Natives and newcomers alike tried to find ways to limit the horrific consequences of the alcohol trade. Each colony passed laws to prohibit the commerce in liquor. More important, Native peoples organized opposition to the trade. They protested to colonial officials about nefarious traders who lured young men with alcohol, and they organized temperance campaigns to halt consumption. Although some of these efforts reflected the teachings of Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the most successful antidrinking programs might have emanated from within Indian communities. Eventually, such programs also helped solidify Native Americans' critique of colonial mores. As the Catawba headman Hagler put it when he met with North Carolina emissaries in 1754, "You Rot Your grain in Tubs, out of which you take and make Strong Spirits." Colonists should desist from such practices, he and others argued, since the liquor trade only caused violence and despair in Indian country.

Despite their efforts, the liquor trade thrived in the colonial period, because traders recognized that alcohol was an ideal commodity. The demand for most trade items, such as manufactured clothing, was limited, but the demand for alcohol was theoretically infinite. Colonial officials in New France and British America who realized the horrors caused by alcohol also recognized the value of the trade. As Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern colonies, informed the Lords of Trade in 1764, the commerce might cause problems, but "the Trade will never be so extensive" without rum.

After the American Revolution, the liquor trade spread farther west. Wherever traders went, alcohol followed. Federal officials became alarmed at the continuing prospect of Indian drinking, so they enacted the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1802, which granted the president the authority to halt the sale of alcohol to Indians. Although various federal and state officials, including Thomas Jefferson, wanted to stop the flow of alcohol into Indian country, they were unable to end the business. As in the colonial period, the economics of the trade proved overwhelming to government officials. Since the profits to be made on alcohol were often greater than those that could be made on other commodities, especially since traders watered down their alcohol so they had more to sell, traders were willing to face any legal risks to sustain the commerce. Missionaries, too, often failed in their efforts to stop drinking in indigenous communities.

Temperance Efforts

The most notable temperance efforts in the nineteenth-century West were those led by Native Americans. The Pawnees, for example, limited alcohol consumption in their communities in the early nineteenth century, and so did various Native peoples who followed the teachings of indigenous revival movements. Thus, the Iroquois Handsome Lake, the Shawnee prophet Tenkswatawa, and a Delaware woman named Beate convinced their followers to abandon alcohol. Later leaders of cultural revival movements also embraced temperance. The Paiute Wovoka, for example, made temperance part of the Ghost Dance, a movement that swept the Plains in the late nineteenth century.

Still, neither federal laws nor temperance efforts ended the scourge of drinking in Indian country. By the mid-nineteenth century, alcohol abuse had taken a toll on the Sioux and Chippewas, among others, according to one government report. In the following decades, which brought untold horror to Native Americans across the Plains and in the West, liquor continued to arrive in indigenous communities. During the twentieth century, the range of social pathologies associated with liquor was simply astonishing. According to estimates, the alcoholism mortality rate was six times higher for Indians than for the general U.S. population, and alcohol-related trauma or disease accounted for seven out of ten admissions to Indian Health Service clinics. Fetal alcohol syndrome had a devastating impact in indigenous communities. Despite the fact that many Native Americans avoided liquor, alcohol also played an enormous role in homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths caused by motor vehicles and exposure. Although alcohol-related problems in indigenous communities were widespread, no single pattern of drinking existed.

Ever since the seventeenth century, observers of Indian alcohol use have suggested that something about the indigenous peoples of the Americas made them particularly susceptible to alcohol abuse. Some have claimed that their problems stem from a genetic trait that makes them more likely to become alcoholics. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was no evidence that Native Americans possess any greater genetic predisposition to alcoholism than the general population. Alcohol, however, continued to take a devastating toll in Indian country, a tragic legacy of the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.


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See alsoAlcohol, Regulation of ; Indian Religious Life ; Indian Social Life ; andvol. 9:Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kaikiak, or Black Hawk .

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Indians and Alcohol