This post was originally published on October 30, 2015.
Having performed stand-up comedy for almost 10 years, I’ve heard the gamut of racial stereotype jokes and I’m sick of every single one of them. According to a myriad of hack comedians, Asians are bad drivers, black people are always late and Mexicans are excessively fertile. Another one I hear constantly that I’m sure the average layman who’s never even been to a comedy show has heard, too? It’s the one about Native Americans all being alcoholic drunkards running amok in their booze-filled casinos. Much like the Irish and sometimes the Russians, the Native Americans often get a bad rap when it comes to their libation habits. But is there legitimacy to this stereotype? A recent piece by Maia Szalavitz in The Verge claims absolutely not but addictions rates are still high in Native American communities. It’s just not for the reasons most people think.
Nature Versus Crappy Nurture
Addiction can be inherent in a person but it can also most certainly be aggravated by traumatic experiences early in life or otherwise. As Szalavitz points out, the common assumption, often referred to as the “firewater” tale, is that when the Europeans bee-bopped into North America (oh, you better believe they bee-bopped), they introduced unsuspecting Natives to alcohol, the Native Americans couldn’t handle their liquor and the rest is history. But according to Joseph Gone, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Native Americans do not have any sort of biological predisposition to addiction, despite a continued, widespread belief to the contrary. You know what they do have? An ungodly amount of cross-generational trauma that spans well into their history, along with every other societal shit storm that comes with being a minority in 2015 America. Of course, it’s not just an American issue. Indigenous people across the globe are seen as way more susceptible to addictive tendencies due to trauma, not some sort of unavoidable set of genetics.
A high percentage of Native American children are separated from their parents at a young age. I think it’s safe to say they have an overall history of general displacement—and that’s putting it lightly. Szalavitz notes, “American Indians are also much more likely than whites to have their families broken up by the state, which can propel trauma down through generations.”
Native Americans, as an overall group, have experienced so much stress which just keeps getting passed down to the next generation. The stress can not only lead to abusing alcohol but also to other chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Besides a general sense of warped identity and familial separation, they’ve experienced historically high unemployment rates and poverty. And low socioeconomic status is also another factor that ups the ante for addiction.
And You Can’t Blame The Actual Beer
In 2012, some Native Americans at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (PS with all the political correctness these days, we are still calling it “Indian” reservation?) located just north of the tiny town of Whiteclay, Nebraska filed a $500-million lawsuit against beer manufacturers. That’s how bad the detriments of alcohol got; they sued the actual liquid, or the closest thing to it. According to the International Business Times, “While the tribe is unlikely to ever see one cent of the damages sought, the lawsuit reflects the desperation of Native Americans, who are mired in poverty, hopelessness, low life expectancy, alcoholism, crime, violence and misery.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge who said something along the lines of, “sure the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska sells five million cans of beer per year and sure the town is 250 feet from the reservation’s grounds and beer is banned on the reservation and you’re all suffering from the effects of abusing alcohol but…you still can’t sue Budweiser.” I am paraphrasing of course. It’s truly tragic the problem became so severe and even sadder that a town with a population as small as 14 people (per the 2000 status, there could be 20 by now if people got to procreating) sells more cans of beer per capita than any town in America.
The Importance of Not Dwelling On the Past
Focusing on the historical grievances of the Native American population is ultimately not helping anyone. It serves to perpetuate a cycle of helplessness and impending doom. As the aforementioned Professor Gone says, focusing on the “historical trauma” takes everyone away from trying to deal with the problems that face them us today. Efforts toward recovery should involve finding ways to alleviate, as Mzalavitz says, “stress, trauma and poverty.” Reconnecting with their roots and embracing, rather than shunning, their cultural identity is also thought to be an effective form of healing. Either way, working toward addressing the problem rather than accepting it as unavoidable will surely prove the most beneficial approach to solving it.