Do Native Americans have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism?
Along with smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, influenza and typhus, alcohol had a major effect when introduced to the Indigenous people of North America. Our Ancestors here in Lakota Country had not developed antibodies through generations of previous exposure and were nearly annihilated by the new diseases. Scholars estimate that over a period of four centuries, 1400A.D.-1800A.D., epidemic diseases killed as much as 90% of the North American Indigenous population.
Knowing that a genetic predisposition is a genetic affectation which influences the phenotype of an individual organism but by definition that phenotype can also be modified by environmental conditions, we can deduce that the ability to combat alcoholism for the Lakota people of today has been enormously impaired. But science will have to find the genetic link to truly answer this question. Until then, I can only go by my own experience.
In my experience, I believe that we do have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and we do get intoxicated quickly. We probably do get intoxicated faster than others especially if their ancestors have had alcohol for thousands of years as opposed to ours, having a relatively short experience. But keep in mind that intoxication also depends on the alcohol content of the drink, how many drinks consumed, your body weight, if you have food in your system, your family tree (heredity), your lack of sleep and rest, possibly the oxygen level in your blood, etc.. Just as differences in pain tolerances are individual, so may be differences in alcohol tolerances.
Environmental causes of alcoholism
But in addition to possible genetic influence of low alcohol tolerance, our reservation environment includes many self-destructing and alcohol abuse promoting forces such as a high unemployment rate (poverty), depression, hopelessness, lack of motivation, anger, a survival mentality, entitlement, low self-esteem, jealousy and negativity.
The near eradication of our spiritual culture has been devastating to the Lakota people. It has promoted and produced a severely high alcoholism rate in addition to poor choices concerning personal and the collective health of our community by our own people.
It appears that we are stuck in a selfish cycle of alcohol abuse. Many here on the reservation witness domestic violence, loss of property, division of family, child abuse and neglect, loss of spirituality, dysfunction and death associated with alcoholism. Despite that disgusting reality, they continue to consume alcohol. Some are remorseful until they attain money again, then all is forgotten and it is back to the alcohol establishment.
Alcohol is not the answer
Alcoholism represents an escape from the everyday pressure of reservation life. Drinking till one is inebriated is both a symbolic and actual counter-push to the pressures that bombard our people. Indeed, it cannot and will never provide a solution to our issues. It only compounds our problems. Again, a destructive cycle that only seems to feed off of itself appears.
I, myself, have been dishonest, cunning and baffling. I used, abused, chewed up and spit out any and all alcohol treatments. All the way through treatment, I drank like I was dying of thirst and was called the model student. Being an addict, I found a way to continue my own madness. I used the statement “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic”, as an excuse and scapegoat. I enjoyed mental and verbal sparring. Ultimately, I was only fooling myself.
Knowing that I can only speak for myself and my own personal experiences, I truly believe that since alcoholism is a considered a disease, it can be healed. I have defeated it in my life. It means that it has absolutely no control over my physical, emotional or spiritual health.
That doesn’t mean that I am not affected by it.
My loved ones still suffer greatly from its effects. I have recently lost a precious niece, an aunt and my closest Grandmother. I have been through severe difficulty and have overcome depression. The very last thought in my mind still doesn’t involve alcohol. I know that doesn’t mesh with the statement “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic”, but alcohol is only a part of what I like to call the “bad old days”. Having only negative consequences from drinking, I will never call them “good”.
Create a vision of a better future
I, as well as many of my friends and associates, have leaned on our true Lakota way of life to achieve and maintain our sobriety. Our spirituality, as well as a vision of a better future, has proven to be a solid foundation in which to begin a multi-generation-overdue healing process. There are individuals here on the reservation who choose the difficult path full of obstacles and adversity called love, honor and respect. They put the health and welfare of our nation above any simple pleasure and self indulgence. They have emerged from and defeated the genetically altered, self-inflicting and oppressing forces to create a better environment that our children will not just be a part of, but will enjoy being a part of. With our desire for a better world, need for better health, focus on family and God’s help, we have personally healed and are trying to paint a beautiful picture of sobriety for those who still cannot comprehend life without alcohol.
One very concrete fact is that the Lakota have every tool in their spiritual teachings to overcome any obstacle. We also have strong blood coursing through our veins. We only have to decide that we are tired of the way things are and recreate a loving, uplifting, encouraging and empowering environment which honors this sacred gift of life.
All my relatives,
Shane Red Hawk
Icimani Ya Waste Recovery Center is one of two recovery centers offered by the St. Francis Mission. We offer 12 step meetings and a Family Recovery Program in conjunction with Betty Ford. St. Francis Mission is a ministry of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) among the 20,000 Lakota (Sioux) people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota. It is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1886. To learn more about the St. Francis Mission and recovery programs please check out their website, or leave a comment below.