Native American alcohol tolerance: Why do Native Americans get drunk faster?

Native Americans may get drunk faster because of genetic predisposition to low alcohol tolerance. But cultural and environmental aspects of drinking can also affect drinking. Discuss Native American alcohol tolerance here.

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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.


About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. Years ago l read a newspaper article on a similar study. It claimed that many native cultures are predisposed to alcohol addiction includong Native Americans and Australian Aborigines. But it also included the Celtic and Gealic people of Ireland.

  2. I never knew why alcohol affects me differently until yesterday, when my Italiano boyfriend told me that drinking is bad for Native Americans. I am part Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee(3C’s) I told him yesterday. He was happy to discover it. My Mother has the disease, she has been depressed for ywars. Poverty, no job, depressed. I am in Italy, where the wine is good, but not for me. I lied to get money for wine, I drank it all and was content, alone. The jealousy and rage is terrible, only when I drink. He came home, and I picked an abusive fight with him. My hair was pulled out, but I bit and scratched him all up. Mental health ambulance came, to take me to the sanitarium, but I pleaded with him to let me stay. He let me. I vow to never drink again. I was sober for a week, now I will be sober forever. Because one drink is never enough for me, and more =aggression, and jealousy. Your article is so helpful and true. My Mother and Father both have Native blood. Alcohol is with them both. Daddy has Pancreatitis, at 51! I pray Mommy gets a job. She has tried.

  3. I grew up around alchol.My grandparents made it. I didn’t like it. Then in highschool I started drinking and quit in my 20s. Now that Im in my 30s it makes me sick. My mom swears we are not native American.But after doing some research found out my grandma was on my moms side. Also my dad was born in South America. So I guess that’s a double kick in the are. I hate alchol and do understand just how bad things can get

  4. Was it the German Blood in me or the Cherokee Indian Blood in me that got me to like alcohol as a kid? I took my first drink at age 14, I took my dad’s mine and mixed it with vanilla ice cream, by age 15, I was drinking Wild Turkey straight from the bottle.
    How do I control the urge to drink? What I have learned about this want for alcohol is that it happens before I even realize it. And afterwards I can’t stand myself for doing, again. I have learned that in order to control it. I have to be connected to something of interest from the moment I wake up, to the time I go to bed.
    I am preparing to take my life story on the road to help people understand how to find a life that will create an interest to live. You can learn more about what I do on Twitter @rustycovey

  5. I thank you for sharing so much of your personal and cultural struggles and triumphs. Currently I am conducting a massive literature review regarding alcohol abuse and it’s unconscionable effects on the Indian population, specifically, Navajo nation. The first and most consistent myth I busted though countless medical and peer-reviewed studies that have been conducted is that it is a complete myth that American Indians process alcohol any differently than the general population. (Please see Alcohol Policy Considerations on Reservations written by Dr. Philip May.)
    Perpetuating this old wives tale keeps the keeps the strong, resourceful Indian population small and helpless. They deserve more, they owe themselves more, we owe them more…

  6. HI DEAR..Although..I know nothing about Acohol/ism..among The American Indians. I spiritually/Conscientiously FEEL driven to HELP them bc. it hurts deeply as Society what happen to/with them. I HAVE A VERY CLOSED FRIEND, that breaks my heart and I WILL LOVE TO HELP THEM.

  7. Hello Shane,
    I read your writings and was inspired by the the depth of spirit, passion and sight. That is a tremendous gift. The greater powers that be have given you a great ability. I smile at your strength. Jule

  8. I am a white nurse considering applying to a medical clinic on a reservation in New Mexico. Would I be trusted? What could I do to give the people the best care taking into account their spirituality and their unique psychosocial culture and difficulties?

  9. You can definitely see your skills within the article you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I wanted to hear the voice of a Native person on this issue. I did not want to assume that it was the norm.
    Your story touches me.
    Now, I know how I can support my Native American brothers and sisters through my prayer offerings.

    Amo souman (thank you very much)


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