Native Americans and alcohol: Why do Native Americans drink so much?

Native Americans are disproportionately dependent on alcohol. Why is this? We explore why Native Americans drink so much here.

minute read

Every racial or ethnic group has specific health concerns which are caused by a combination of genetic, cultural, and environmental factors. For example, some people think that Irish people drink too much as a culture. But American Indians and Alaska Natives STATISTICALLY suffer disproportionately from substance use disorders compared with other racial groups in the United States. Why is this? And what can be done about it?

What causes Native Americans to drink?

To be blunt, life on a Native American reservation is unimaginably hard. Native Americans deal with the historical trauma of government theft, lies and mistreatment. And individual trauma is also extremely common. Violence and abuse in the home are frequent. Unemployment is high. Single parent homes are common. Everyone around you drinks. Additionally, many reservations are completely rural and isolated.

Pain is everywhere.

So drinking to stop the pain is a normal coping mechanism. Why start drinking alcohol? Why wouldn’t you?

We recently talked with Native American treatment centers providers at St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota. As Geraldine, head of the Mission’s Family Recovery Program told me about drinking,

“It’s just the norm. It’s like anything else. It’s in your environment, you’re used to seeing it. So because your family drinks, you start too.”

Here’s a brief list of why Native Americans may drink so much:

  • endemic alcoholism (100% of people affected by alcoholism)
  • family dysfunction
  • generational drinking patterns
  • historical trauma (past actions of the U.S. government and institutions)
  • increasing distance from traditions and language
  • isolation
  • little hope
  • no communication within the family
  • no positive support or role models
  • personal trauma (abuse and sexual assault 2-3 times national average)
  • social pressure
  • unemployment (at 80% on many reservations)

Native American drinking

Learned patterns begin early in our lives. To what extent we are influenced by our environments or genetics to drink researchers do not yet know. The interplay between the two may be difficult to separate. But what we do know is that there is an answer and a way out of alcoholism, for Native Americans and all people. The journey is very personal. It is one of self-discovery and changed values. But recovery is possible.

If you have a comment, or feedback about drinking, please leave it below. We welcome all questions or comments! And will publish them.

Reference sources: September 2011 interview with Brother Pat and Geraldine from the St. Francis Mission on Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota.


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. I never knew an indiginous person until I was 20. I only knew Italians, and French, and English… Then I became a mountie and moved west. At a young age, I began to get to know the rest of our countrymen. After a few years I moved to northern Canada to do my job, where I worked with the Inuitand and Cree in the NWT of Canada. So now, with years and years of experience of dealing with alcohol and communities and different races, I can only say that I love our Aboriginals, and I very much dislike white people. There are some good whites, but not a lot of them.. Overall, aboriginals are good people, and we whites, are horrible. (Just look at our history) And I’m of German/English decent. I am always amazed at how my wife (Aboriginal), and her family, maybe did drink when young, but somehow, they realize that it is bad, and they just stopped. But when drinking they never hurt anyone. Not like a sober white Nazi, or Putkin or Donald Trump or Bush will. White and middle eastern people, go on and on and on and on killing one another.. We are patheti. I love the Inuit and North American Indians. They have so much that I wish that I (we) had. They are a great people.

  2. :/ I am not full blooded I get Native American side from great grandmother who was father I never knew grandmother. My biological grandfather who’s my mother’s father he drink so badly where he end up abusing my mom as child and my own grandmother which lead to divorce because he was one sicko. I am afraid of alcohol and I don’t ever drink it terrified of it.

  3. Indians also seem to have a lot of diabetes. The children are addicts to sugar. I believe that since sugar is a relatively new substance they cannot process it .. Whites have eaten it thousands of years and drank alcohol too. You realize Indians had no sugar in their diet I until 100 to 200 years ago… So it could be an endocrine problem…I believe they drink for release from life and destruction of culture, but there is some link with sugar processing… I have lived on a reservation and witnessed it

  4. Believe it or not, not all Native Americans drink alcohol, nor take any other harmful substances. My mother did not drink that stuff and I do not drink, either. Most of my tribe did not drink, especially the traditionalist. It was considered bad and will mess up the medicine taken during ceremonial time. I know a lot of Native that don’t drink. We all know that alcohol is an addictive substance and is passed from generation to generation, sadly, most young people follow the example of what is going on within their environment. We need a program for our young people that will help them fulfill a better way of life. Alcoholism is not the answer, but how can any young person perceive the difference, when they live in that situation and know nothing else. .

  5. I was fed alcohol in a baby bottle as a child to shut me up and put me to sleep I am a native indian every one around me drank i lost children to my drinking and ended up on the streets of nys alone sick of catching seziours being sick all the time abused hungry and cold trying to survive to scared to die i made a decision i prayed on it so that i would make the right one it took a long time but i up and left with nothing but self and a prayer today i am nine years clean live in a comfortable apt have a good dog plenty of plants I just had enough went threw a scary moment that really shook me and never drank since Ive been threww many scary situations in my life that were greatly life threating but this took the cake shook me deep to the core some people may say that wasent real but i know different God was with me and still is and I drank like a fish my liver was diseased not now all clear we can all stop drinking but the fight is to remain stopped from a park bench to a king sized bed thank you GOD

  6. I am a substance abuse counselor and would appreciate some good advise on how to work with the community members on how to reach out and start some type of a drop in center not AAA. There is young men and women are still consuming but will ask for help because this is a small community of 1500 and everyone knows each other and grew up together. I would appreciate some good advise to help our native in Metlakatla, Alaska

  7. Tired of reading of “historical trauma” as part of the excuse for native addiction. All civilizations have been conquered, many ejected from their lands, many killed…. they claim no such historical trauma, as far as I know, PTSD is not an inherited malady. Want to change things? Take responsibility. If life on the reservation is really that intolerable, then leave, there are no walls keeping you there. Stop blaming others, own your own stuff and work to change it..

  8. I live in NM and work in a hospital. Sadly I see the majority of the alcoholics being native. The biology comes to play too native lack something, I forget what in the mitochondria to process alcohol as the rest of us do. Please look it up. I thinks it’s very sad addiction alcohol is the hardest to withdrawal from. Nurses and doctors have told me. Alcohol goes into your blood stream and withdrawal can take up to 2 weeks with seizures as a possibility.

  9. the is the first time i have seen the “real” reasons natives drink. we all know about inheriting a so-called “gene”, but the truth is all the bullshit we’ve been through since columbus arrived is the real reason.

  10. I worked in Alaska both as a state trooper and later with the State alcohol safety action program (ASAP). I’ve often wondered if state and federal welfare programs don’t contribute to drinking problems. I believe pride and self worth are harmed by long term receipt of unearned benefits, that these benefits become addicting. Alaska natives I knew who were beating alcoholism did so by working their way out of tough circumstances. The government didn’t save them, they saved themselves.

  11. I have also seen many family members with major depression (including myself) as well as some with bipolar disorder. I think this also contributes to turning to alcohol.

  12. I am native American and irish its not hard too stop change your environment will help alot , the reservation would be a start not saying that all natives r boozers but a large part are hope I help some of my people on both sides the Irish were also abused by the U.S.government gladly giving my advice thanks to u all.

  13. It makes me sad because no one should be drinking that much because of people will hurt ones they love the most and ruin their life. :/ I am not Native American but I feel bad for them because I know what its like to be treated with cruelty. I been called hybrid-child,freak and words I will not mention. I have two different skin colors on my body and they see me as alien, if it is culture thing I hope they don’t over do it because its not worth it because it is evil and cause you to do things you’ll regret. Alcohol and drugs ruin my family that is reason I grew up fatherless and my mom did to our fathers only care for alcohol then their own children. No child deserves to grow up fatherless like most of us human beings have. That is why I always pray to my ancestors to protect them from harm.

  14. The Choctaw Native American’s in Oklahoma seem to be thriving. How did they do it and how can this success be spread through out the other parts of America among other native populations? Are the Choctaw representative of what is happening in general among Native American’s as a whole in Oklahoma?
    What can we as non-native Americans do to help?

  15. I drank “alcoholically” for 38 years, starting in my late teens and ending some 16 years ago. My body started
    showing some signs of wear, my count of failed marriages was on the increase, and alcohol just was not giving
    me the results that I wanted. For the most part, I was a functional drunk. My career went reasonably well
    while drinking every day. I did not know or care if I was an alcoholic; drinking was a way of life. Maybe I was a habitual drinker, maybe a compulsive drinker, maybe habitual, maybe I was an alcoholic. My ability to tolerate alcohol varied from year
    to year.
    In retrospect, I believe I was drinking to ease some of the pains of life; also trying to fulfill that hunger that we
    are all born with, that hunger that can only be sated by Our Lord, the Creator of the Universe. A twelve step
    program helped me learn how to live sober. Most of all, I thank God; it was obvious that I was not going to do it
    on my own.

  16. so….who should we blame? If a native actually accomplishes something, they get nothing but resounding praise…..when they abuse alcohol/drugs, break the law, steal cars, and are basically
    detriments to society in general……we try to find reasons for why they are victims

  17. first step to getting rid of any addiction is recognizing you have a problem.second you must want help to get rid of it. third you must seek out the proper resource to help you with this. I am trying to be a christian. I say trying because we are ALL sinners and we are ALL children of God! I turned to God to help me. See our addictions not only effect us but the ones we love as well. We have to first love ourselves before we can love anyone else! Loving God can help you to better love yourself. Believe and know that nothing is impossible with God in your life. Jesus came to free us of our sins, not to condemn us of the conditions we are in. He offers salvation and encouragement to ALL who turn to him. God Bless You and know that he loves you unconditionally. Get help!

  18. Hello Curtis. Thank you for sharing about your life and beliefs about addiction. I was also an alcoholic. We want to know WHY things happen and the cause of addiction is one of the biggest medical mysteries out there. Reading your comments reminded me that maybe it’s better to concentrate on HOW to get out of addiction instead of wondering why it happens. Blessings to you and your family. Lee

  19. I’m a member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. I’ve been in Recovery
    for over twenty-five years. but I was an alcoholic for the same amount time and for me I though death was the only way out. In Dec, 1987 I went to the Ponca Social Development Center for help
    me with my chronic addictive problem. I completed the program and
    two years later they call me to work for them, I received my CADC/
    ICADC – State and National A/D Certification in June, 1996. I live to
    tell my story, I don’t believe Alcoholism is genetic within the Native American People, I think the only thing that was pasted from generation to generation was Post Traumatic Stress / Trauma and the feelings of self-worth. caused by the U.S. Government and the only way to deal with the pain was to medical it. I quit but I didn’t do
    it alone, I looked for the ones that could help me, and to God to show me the way. now I help those that need my help and I thank God everyday. thank you.

  20. D Gramme: I’m native america, and let me tell you. All of our traditions have been lost, sure we may have some, but most of it is lost. Being sent to boarding school so we can be “Humane” was the hardest thing on my fathers, and grandfathers life. It’s this feeling of everything just being taken away from you, to know that our civilization is nearly gone, and the last of our kind has no past tradition to keep it going. We blame the people who came to this land and brought war, disease, and disaster, not because it is “most of them” that set ruin to my ancestors. I know every life isn’t perfect, but since you do not have the responsibility to carry old and sacred tradition, then you wouldn’t truly understand our suffering. I’ve longed to get revenge for what my ancestors done, but as I grew older, my perception of people changed. I cannot change the past, and therefore cannot do anything about it. If my tradition is lost, I can no longer get it back. And forever in our people’s heart’s will remain the black void that sucks everything we know from us. Now we believe in some deity that was forced into us, how my grandfather used to tell me about the beauty in nature. Now it all no longer exists, my eyes can’t see the patterns they once did, they can’t hear the voice of the wood, or feel the movement of the wind, the hugging warmth of the sun, and understand the tears that fall from the sky. It all seems just a blur to me…

  21. Hi Jackie. Thanks for sharing more about your personal experience and thoughts about alcohol. It is possible that you have an in-born affinity to alcohol. But as long as you are aware of and can control drinking, you need not worry. Once you no longer are in control of drinking, and cannot stop when you start drinking or cannot stay stopped, it’s a sign that there is a problem.

  22. This is interesting and appreciate everyone’s posts and the article. I just me this guy online who lives here in Texas for work but is from the Navajo reservation in Arizona. We haven’t met yet, but we have great conversation. Lately, he’s been calling me drunk more often. So, yes, I did google this topic and found this site. I’m Mexican-American, and we are also known for having alcoholism issue as well. My father is an alcoholic and I’ve noticed that I enjoy the drink as well, but watch it now as the “enjoyment and pleasure” from it scard me a bit. I guess I’m looking at it from a 3rd person perspective. I would love to have a family of my own one day but would never want to puthim or her through the hell I went through. Sorry for letting it out, but just putting in my part. Thanks.

  23. I agree that the natives were forced to endure many hardships throughout their lives and over time, but i find it too convenient to pass off some of their addiction problems on the “settlement” of north america. i was raised in a household with two drunken parents (one of which violent) my brother was a heavy cocaine user and yet i didnt manage to become any of those things. some will argue well its multi generational (this cycle in my family goes back to my fathers grandfather) same circumstance yet i chose my own outcome. i grew up in a small isolated twon as well, granted not as much so as the arctic, but nevertheless i never blamed any hardships on someone else.

  24. Hi Trey. I’m so sorry to hear about your father. You may be feeling lots of things: sad, angry, tired, disappointed. Many times, we cannot understand why a person would want to basically start killing themselves with alcohol. The only thing that we can control is our own behavior. Have you been able to talk with anyone about your feelings and thoughts? The best way to prevent drugs or alcohol from starting to creep into your life is to talk to someone you trust so that you can learn how to cope with your father’s alcoholism.

  25. My father has severe drinking problems he drinks away his problems even after he left the resorvations to search for a job he still drinks and cannot stop

  26. James, the government can take my beer from my cold dead hands. Prohibition didn’t work in the past and prohibition of all intoxicating substances isn’t working now. Substance abuse absolutely does not cause “all the social, economic ills.” It is the result of these problems, but yes, it often makes it worse. Did you ever think that people drink to escape their problems? Sometimes these problems are not obvious to other people and especially family. It is time that people stop finding scapegoats such as drugs and alcohol for societies issues and realize that humans are the reason the world is so screwed up. Bigotry, greed, racism, intolerance, (did I say greed?), selfishness, materialism, apathy… these are the root of our problems.

  27. As a mormon, we do not drink any alcohol as it is called the word of wisdom. NO one in the ten years of being mormon drinks alcohol or drugs. Lifers, thos that stick with the church are generally very happy. They support each other. They visit each other in times of need. We have at least that I recall, one native klinket indian in our church “before I moved” and he was generally very nice.

    I think the KEY to not getting involved in alcohol is to hang around like people who are emotionally uplifting who are good roll models who are like familly.

    In my life, even before joining the church, I have NEVER EVER seen ANYTHING good about alcohol. Alcohol, even consumed in moderation, is just a excuse to drink even more to the point of being a alcoholic. my mom was arested and jailed for a day for a DWI in the 1980s. Alchol drove her away from my dad..who did not drink. She stopped being involved with alcohol all together.

    I just wish alcohol was banned for ever in the US and Canada. It creates all the Social, Economic ills.

  28. Hi Janice. I’d suggest that you check out Al-Anon. It is a safe place for you to investigate your boundaries with your husband, and to start to seek some help for possible enabling behaviors. Binge drinking is not OK in a marriage and will affect your relationship.

  29. I am married to a lakota man. He is a good man who is currently enlisted in the military. He never physically, mentally, or even verbally attack me. My only flaw about him is he goes on a bringe drinking on weekends and sometimes during the weekdays he works. Even if it is his last little money from his paycheck. I don’t know what to do. please

  30. To all our Brothers and Sisters of all races….Alcohol doesn’t care who it grabs hold of. Alcoholism is a very real disease to the person that allows it to control one’s life, emotionally,physically,spiritually. Alcohol preys upon those that have open wounds to the soul. The creator put us on mother earth to live our lives in harmony and to give back to her..not to take away from her by swaying through life and putting ourselves down with the mind changers. The answer is to reconnect to our creator to restore our natural beauty and state of survival. the creator answers prayer my friends. I was once a troubled alcoholic and came to the conclusion that I was responsible for my downfall of troubles one else. My life is different now and have a purpose in life..that is to help other brothers and sister that went down the same path as myself..pray to the creator a better you is inside yourself.. it can be done.

  31. The people traded anything they owned for alcohol, which left them destitute and defenceless against winter temperatures. This was not quality alcohol. The so-called whiskey given out by traders for buffalo robes and other furs was a lethal concoction of alcohol mixed with anything that would give it colour and substance-bluestone, burnt sugar, castile soap, Jamaica Ginger, Perry Davis Painkiller, tea, ink and sometimes, horrifically, strychnine (a poison).” -Margaret A. Kennedy The Whiskey Trade of the Northwestern Plains

  32. This seems to be written from a white guys perspective. Have you ever been on a reservation? Drinking is just a surface problem.

    It’s not just merely the theft of land, but the policies of assimilation. US and Canada’s Government wanted to “get rid of the Indian problem” or “Kill the Indian within the child”. Removing – kidnapping children from their families and traditional way of life was like ripping the heart and centre out. Once the heart was taken, everything else began to shatter and fall away; Elders had no one to teach, women had no one to care for and men had no one to provide for an protect. This was the break down of family, and it still is happening today.

  33. Hi Tanya. Thanks for your question. From my reading, most native people in American had little or no experience with alcohol and its effects before exposure and trading with Europeans. Some tribes used weak fermented beverages in certain rituals, but this was limited and taken in healthy amounts. When alcohol became available in large amounts during the fur trade, Native Americans had little time to adjust to alcohol on social and traditional levels. Excessive and drunken drinking was first imitated (this is the way Europeans drank) and then became epidemic as an illness within the population soon thereafter.

    Does this help?

  34. Hi D.David. Thank you for sharing your experience and hope for others. I do hope that anyone who can relate and wants to stop drinking will find this page and ask questions. We are here to help refer people to resources and services that can help.

    Also, just to learn more about how you did stop drinking…Did you go to a rehab/treatment center or did you stop drinking on your own?

    Kind regards from Addiction Blog.

  35. I don’t know, and I am a proud native. But, I do know Indians drink
    till they drop. I drank 20 years and stopped with the help from a
    higher power. May we all find truth.

I am ready to call
i Who Answers?