Essay, Research Paper: American Indians


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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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