Further Reading

Why are so many indians alcoholics?


One of the most interesting topics (for me), at your web site, is represented by the articles and papers on cross cultural studies that show the difference that the underlying culture has in how substances are used/abused, and even in the resulting physical effects. About a year ago I was doing some reading on the history of prohibition and came across an account of the dealings between the Hudson Bay Co. and the Pacific Coast Indians. This was in the lower Columbia River Basin, at the beginning of the 19th century. What struck me particularly was how resistant the Indians were to the inducements of alcohol in the beginning, refusing to drink to intoxication, loosing respect for white men who did, and becoming angry when a chief's son (an adolescent) was encouraged to get drunk and make a fool himself. A mere 20 years later, with 9 out of every 10 of these people dead from war or starvation or (mostly) disease, and their culture and native economy in total ruin, the survivors were well on the way to becoming the people that we think we know today. That is, as a people, completely unable to handle alcohol.

I've never thought of myself as a racist, but I'd never before questioned the assumption that Native Americans differed from the rest of us in some basic way that explained this behavior. Do you know anything about the early contact between Europeans and various Native American Nations? Does this pattern appear elsewhere? I'd appreciate any information or direction you might be able to suggest.



Dear Russ:

Thank you for this fascinating question.

  1. There is a history of the introduction of foreign intoxicants by dominant or conquering cultures, and the results are uniformly bad ones. Perhaps the most often noted example in addition to the Native American one you discussed is the impact of opium on the Chinese when imported by the British from India, where it had been used ceremoniously for centuries without harmful effects. In China, however, this foreign substance quickly became a pernicious and addictive habit, a symbol of subjugation and escape, as represented best by the sordid opium den. (Notice, however, that the Indians had their revenge by introducing tobacco smoking-to which they were not traditionally addicted---to white people.)
  2. Your analysis of the context of the introduction of alcohol to Pacific Coast Indians is an excellent one, and leads you in the right direction. I was particularly struck by your description of the use of social disapproval by Indian leaders to repress drunkenness; a direct and successful modern equivalent for this is found among American Cantonese Chinese in New York's Chinatown Obviously, these social strictures were destroyed with the decimation of the Pacific tribes. Ironically, I debated Jim Milam before the NIAAA in San Diego in 1989, and he gave an impassioned description of Indian drinking, from which he concluded exactly the wrong and useless message that Native Americans are genetically predisposed to alcoholism. In fact, those working with Indians note that they quickly acknowledge the disease concept, then continue drinking outrageously.
  3. Observers and scientists note a greater tendency to flushing (based probably on acetaldehyde build-up) in Asiatic peoples. Some have therefore uncritically (along with Milam, social psychologist Stanley Schachter) attributed drinking problems among Native Americans to this biological phenomenon. This holds not a thimble-full of water: To wit:
  4. The lowest alcoholism group in the U.S. and in an international survey by Helzer et al. was the Chinese. Just as the highest alcoholism groups in the U.S. are Native Americans and Inupiat, who also flush, Helzer and Canino (1992) were stunned to discover that the alcoholism rate among the neighboring (to the Chinese) Koreans was fifty times the Chinese rate.
  5. Joseph Westermeyer and Dwight Heath have examined Native American drinking and point out wide variations in problem drinking, not by racial group, but by cultural situation.
  6. Ron Johnson and Sylvia Schwitters conducted a number of studies in the mid-1980s with flushing among Asians and found that flushing among individual Asians and Asian ethnic groups interacted with cultural and personal variables in leading to drinking outcomes. The idea that Asian Americans form a single group that shares flushing and drinking characteristics is a myth, and Chinese Americans drink more moderately than Japanese and Korean Americans. The latter group in particular has high rates both of heavy drinking and of abstinence in the U.S. Drinking behavior among Asian groups is related both to ethnic group and to drinking subgroups.

Native Americans are a group to whom genetic and disease theories have been applied promiscuously without resulting good to the peoples themselves. There is a strong counter movement today to among these Native peoples to explore nondisease theories that build on individual, community, and cultural strengths.

Let me know how your research goes,



  1. I discuss this on my web site in "Love and Addiction" with reference to Clausen (1961) and Blum et al. (1969). In The Meaning of Addiction, I present a model of Native American theology vis-a vis alcoholism in Chapter 5, "Culture and Ethnicity," with special reference to Mohatt (1972).
  2. I discuss the Chinese and other cultural recipes for eliminating alcohol abuse in "A moral vision of addiction" and also Diseasing of America, with special reference to Barnett (1955).
  3. See my analysis of Schachter and his academic school of social psychologists on this and related questions in "Behavior in a vacuum: Social-psychological theories of addiction that deny the social and psychological meanings of behavior," Journal of Mind and Behavior, 11, 513-530, 1990. See "The implications and limitation of genetic models of alcoholism and other addictions."
  4. Archie Brodsky and I review this and other cross-cultural data in Alcohol and Society. How Culture Influences the Way People Drink
  5. J.J. Westermeyer, "The drunken Indian": Myths and realities, Psychiatric Archives, 4: 29, 1974; D.B. Heath, Alcohol use among North American Indians, in Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems (Vol. 7), New York: Plenum, 1983.
  6. Chi, Lubben, and Kitano, Differences in drinking behavior among three Asian-American groups, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 50, 15-23, 1989.