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Native Americans and Alcoholism

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Native Americans and Alcoholism

Since alcohol was first introduced to the Native Americas by the Europeans it seems they have had a problem with it. Sadly enough we have all heard the "drunken Indian" jokes and the related stereotypes; I know I did growing up. Native Americans have higher rates of alcohol use, frequency of use, and increased rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, compared with other ethnic groups (Szlemko, Wood & Thurman, 2006). The questions I would like to address are why are Native Americans have such a higher rate of alcoholism? What is the history of it? What are the treatments being sought? What are the causes and why does it seem there is so little being done about it?

The American Indian has had a unique experience with chemical dependency. While there are hundreds of American Indian tribes, each with their own culture and subgroups, each tribe and subgroup has its own drinking patterns. However, they have one factor in common: post-traumatic stress caused by discrimination and racism resulting from colonization. Social injustice, ethnocentrism and economic instability contribute to alcohol consumption by Native Americans (Frisbee, 2005).

High prevalence rates of alcohol misuse among Native Americans must be understood in light of their unique history, which has resulted in trauma and exposure to many risk factors for problem alcohol use. Many risk factors have been identified in the general population; however, only some of these risk factors have been examined among Native American populations. The unique history and world view of Native Americans mean that, often, risk factors operate differently from the way they do in other populations (Beauvais, 1998). Native Americans' uniqueness in terms of history, culture, and societal position has resulted in a distinct set of circumstances that are unlike those found in any other group. These circumstances are further complicated by the diversity within Native American groups. With over 500 federally recognized tribes, with each its own history, culture, and traditions, estimating the level of alcohol use and abuse is difficult, and preventions that work for one tribe may be inappropriate or even counterproductive in another (Frisbee, 2005).

Starting at the beginning we find that before Columbus arrived on the shores of the Western hemisphere, there were an estimated 4.4 to 12.25 million indigenous people living in what is now the United States (U.S). Now after the last 400 hundred years of colonization, the native population dropped to only 250,000 in 1900. Fortunately, native populations recovered somewhat after 1900, and currently there are about 4.1 million Native Americans living within the U.S (Frisbee, 2005). This decimation, along with other continuing hardships, has left deep scars that have crossed generations and continue to impact Native Americans today. This could be one of the possible reasons for the level of alcoholism in Native Americans. Some researchers have tried to find the connection between the historical and cultural notion of historical trauma and the individual, medically-termed notion of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Szlemko, Wood & Thurman, 2006). However, from my experiences on the reservations historical trauma has very little if anything to do with the alcoholism epidemic facing Native Americans.

The stereo types people believe about Native Americans have not helped either. In the early 1900's, many people criticized the Native Americans as drunk smelling Indians like a homeless person on the street without a shelter, and used the term drunkard to refer to the Indians. The term drunken Indian stereotyped to be widely accepted; in fact, the image of the chronic drunken Indian is integral to the negative Native American stereotype. Current poll conducted show people believe the highest Native American arrest rates occur for violations of liquor laws and drunkenness. In the United States, many people believed Native Americans were frequently arrested for alcohol-related offenses and that there were indications Native American prison inmates were highly likely to have been intoxicated when committing those crimes. By doing just a little researching it can be discovered that these stereo types are completely untrue. It is true that Native Americans have had their problems as every race has down through history but overall Native Americans are courageous people of honor who put aside the stereotypes of alcohol and chose to live their lives.

Growing up hearing these negative stereo types may lead into another major risk factor for alcohol use among Native American adolescents and even adults; peer attitudes. Peer-cluster theory highlights the role of a small group of youth or adolescents who, over time, develop similar attitudes, behaviors, and norms. Peer alcohol and other drug use was one of the most significant risk factors related to individual alcohol and other drug use. Peer clusters can normalize either positive or negative attitudes. Thus peer groups are both an important risk factor and an important protective factor (Stone, Whitbeck, Chen, Johnson & Olson, 2006). Many Native American youth are closer to their extended family than are younger people of other ethnicities and so their peer group is more likely to include relatives rather than unrelated friends. This has been the experience of both my parents and I; we have both witnessed this first hand. It is very hard for them to "break the cycle."

Age of initial alcohol use is another factor related to later alcohol use and abuse. Generally, the younger an individual is at the time of first alcohol use, the greater the probability that he or she will use or abuse alcohol as an adult. Often, first use is in the company of peer groups. Native American youth's age of first experimentation may be earlier than in other groups due to the peer group being more likely to include older relatives (Venner & Feldstein, 2006). Parental monitoring, the parents' awareness of what their children are doing, has been well established as a factor related to alcohol and drug use as well as to delinquency. Lack of parental monitoring increases the likelihood of alcohol use, whereas consistent parental monitoring decreases the likelihood of alcohol use. Logically, parental monitoring is influenced by other factors such as economics. For Native Americans, there are other factors that may also influence parental monitoring. One of these is the role of boarding schools. In such cases, parental monitoring is likely very limited (Stone et al., 2006). This has been the case for many of the older Native Americans who went to or were force to go to boarding schools. This is no longer the case but the damage has already been done.

Parental and family support



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