Native Americans Were Not Introduced to Alcohol by Europeans

Melissa 13
alcoholIt is a sad truth that Native Americans suffer from alcoholism at rates far higher than those of other ethnic groups. While many causes likely contribute to this problem, some of those most commonly espoused, including lack of prior exposure to alcohol and genetic predisposition, are oft-repeated misconceptions. In fact, well before Europeans began to colonize the Americas, Native Americans were putting on a nice, polite buzz.

The Myth that Europeans Introduced Native Americans to Alcohol

People have been making alcohol since the dawn of civilization. In the Levant, archeologists have found evidence that “brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic era” (12,000-9,500 BC). As the Natufians possessed only stone tools and basic technology, clearly it doesn’t take much to make a simple brew.

This was certainly the case in North America where a number of Native American peoples had been making alcoholic beverages using various simple methods since long before first contact.

In Mexico, some believe Native Americans used a corn precursor to make a brewed drink; they note: “the ancestral grass of modern maize, teosinte, was well suited for making beer – but was much less so for making corn flour.” In addition, it is well established that Mexican Native Americans prepared “over forty different alcoholic beverages [from] . . . a variety of plant substances, such as honey, palm sap, wild plum, and pineapple.

In the Southwestern U.S., the Papago, Piman, Apache and Maricopa all used the saguaro cactus to produce a wine, sometimes called haren a pitahaya. Similarly, the Apache fermented corn to make tiswin (also called tulpi and tulapai) and the yucca plant to make a different alcoholic beverage.

The Coahuiltecan in Texas combined mountain laurel with the Agave plant to create an alcoholic drink, and the Pueblos and Zunis were believed to have made fermented beverages from aloe, maguey, corn, prickly pear, pitahaya and even grapes.

To the east, the Creek of Georgia and Cherokee of the Carolinas used berries and other fruits to make alcoholic beverages, and in the Northeast, “there is some evidence that the Huron made a mild beer made from corn.” In addition, despite the fact that they had little to no agriculture, both the Aleuts and Yuit of Alaska were believed to have made alcoholic drinks from fermented berries.

It should be noted, however, that most of these beverages were relatively weak, presumably no stronger than wine (which typically runs from 8-14% ABV). Whiskey, on the other hand, is usually 60% ABV, and grain alcohol (e.g., moonshine) is often 95% ABV. As a result, when Europeans introduced these stronger drinks, Native Americans were in for a shock.

The “Drunken Indian” Myth

Contrary to popular misconceptions, there is no evidence to support theories that Indians were pre-disposed to alcoholism. Rather, they appear to be the victims of a tragic combination of circumstances.

Shortly after first contact, trade was established. In exchange for the furs and skins so prized by Europeans, colonists and traders provided large quantities of strong liquor and wine. With little or no experience consuming strong alcohol, Native American communities were ill prepared to manage their populace’s exposure to so much of it. As one expert noted:

When . . . large amounts of distilled spirits and wine [were] made available to American Indians, the tribes had little time to develop social, legal, or moral guidelines to regulate alcohol use.

Sadly, the hard-drinking, rowdy colonists provided early Native Americans with the worst role models possible. Binge drinking, violent outbursts and extreme intoxication were common. This influence had a devastating effect on Native American communities. As one commentator opined:

For a culture that was naïve to alcohol use, this model of alcohol consumption established a behavioral pattern of drinking that reinforced unhealthy quantities from the onset. . . . It is probable to conclude that [this] left our ancestors unable to re-establish cultural and societal standards with relation to the regulation of alcohol use.

The Genetic Myth

Another common misconception is that Native Americans lack the enzymes necessary to properly metabolize alcohol, and, therefore, have no genetic defense to protect them from becoming alcoholics. Reminiscent of the devastating effect European diseases had on native populations at first contact due to lack of immunity, this explanation has a certain appeal – but it is completely false. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHS):

Despite the fact that more Native American people die of alcohol-related causes than do any other ethnic group in the United States, research shows that there is no difference in the rates of alcohol metabolism and enzyme patterns between Native Americans and Whites.

This means that, sadly, the high rate of alcoholism among Native Americans is due to other factors. Some possible causes include the loss of culture and autonomy, which have included being forced onto reservations and a variety of other indignities great and small.

One example was the 20th century practice of forcing children to attend special boarding schools, often hundreds of miles away from home. In addition to the emotional and psychological damage caused by forced separation, this program prevented parents from having “the opportunity to raise their children in a way that was culturally congruent.

Alcohol and Native American Communities Today

Alcoholism is a disease that disproportionately affects Native Americans. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that over 12% of Native Americans are heavy drinkers (the highest among all ethnic groups), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that Native Americans have the highest prevalence of binge drinking.

This chronic alcohol use has devastated many Native American communities. Alcohol has been identified as the culprit in 65% of car crashes on reservations and a whopping 48% of all vehicle-related deaths among the population.

Alcohol is also blamed for numerous homicides and suicides, as well as injuries and assaults from alcohol-fueled domestic violence. It is reported that one in three Native American women will suffer from domestic or sexual violence in her lifetime; this rate is more than twice the national average.

Tragically, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis was the fifth leading cause of death among the Native American population in 2009.

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13 Comments »

  1. Harlan November 20, 2013 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    This article is a bait and switch. The title and beginning of the article gives the impression that indians made and drank booze before White people arrived. But by the end of the article, it has made the claim that indians just had weak beer and wine, and that it is in fact White people’s fault that indians are drunks, because we had stronger booze than them. This blame game article even gives an exaggerated spin on the facts about hard liqueur, deceptively describing hard liqueur as “usually” being 60% alcohol; when in fact the most commonly sold proof of bottled hard liqueur is 80 proof, which equals only 40%.

    The only way non-whites are ever going to solve their problems is if they take responsibility for themselves and stop blaming “whitey” for every thing bad in the World.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey November 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm - Reply

      @Harlan: I think you’re reading much more into Melissa’s article here than she was actually saying. :-)

  2. Ralphie November 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    @Harlan: Also with respect to the proof of hard liqueur, booze today is cut to get the consistent 80 proof. Whiskey that is kept “Barrel Proofed” is not cut, and there are a few distillers out there still producing whiskey this way (George T. Stagg for instance, my favorite). In drinking these, the lowest proof I’ve had was 123 proof, the highest being 146.

  3. michael mack December 3, 2013 at 10:37 am - Reply

    First, the common use of “Native Americans” or “American Indians” on specific issues only serves to reinforce sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. In deed, those terms were established by the U.S. government and Americans for their convenience. Accurate statements would state specific tribes, e.g. Cherokee, Pima, etc.

    Regarding the introduction of alcoholic, except for the few tribes mentioned in the article, the vast majority of indigenous people of the North American continent had no prior experience with alcohol before Europeans introduced it. This is particularly true with the tribes that first encountered the Europeans in the northeast and in those areas such as the Dakotas where Europeans sought to expand their holdings. In essence, the title is misleading in that it implies that “all” “Native Americans” had prior experience with alcohol, the reality is that most did not. Using specific names of peoples helps in establishing accuracy and minimizing over-generalizations.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey December 3, 2013 at 12:46 pm - Reply

      @Michael Mack: “except for the few tribes mentioned in the article, the vast majority of indigenous people of the North American continent had no prior experience with alcohol before Europeans introduced it.” What are your sources for that one? From our research, it would seem it was far more widespread. Further, another indicator is the simple fact that pretty much every group of people in history where there are records surviving seem to have had some form of alcohol pretty much around the time they started making bread, which is probably no coincidence.

      • michael mack December 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm - Reply

        The accounts of various missionaries and colonial and later U.S. government officials in their early encounters with tribes particularly in New England into the Plains. These individuals wrote detailed accounts of their first-hand experiences of their times spent within tribal societies. These writings were in essence reports back to their superiors as to the nature of the Natives life-styles, from sexual practices to family structures to religious practices – they left nothing out, including their eating and drinking practices, and native-source alcohol use was never mentioned. In those early contact years, Europeans and later the U.S. government were, to put it bluntly, looking for any rationale to justify colonization or expand it, so if alcohol use had been present in those Native cultures during those times, it would have been documented, but nothing was.

        What follows is a short representative list of publications on the issue. The introduction of European contact shows the first use of alcohol in such works as:

        “Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America” Peter C. Mancall, Cornell University Press, 1995.

        Missionary accounts include:

        The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-century North America. Allan Greer, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000

        Publications by agencies such as the National Institute of Health, make the same point
        http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-4/253.pdf

        U.S. government publications include:

        Guide to American Indian Documents in the Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1899: A Project of the Institute for the Development of Indian Law. Steven L. Johnson
        Clearwater Publishing Company, Jun 1, 1977. The section “Liquor” appears in documents starting after 1874.

        Also, books the deal with the traditional spiritual practices of various tribes often include details of the practices that were performed, and except for a few tribes in the Southwest, there are no references to practices that include the use of alcohol. It is particularly important to recognize that in pre-European times, spiritual practices were a 24/7 life-style unlike European life-styles that were segmented into different categories – recreation, church, work, etc. In Native cultures spiritual practices defined the individual and what they did. In works such as the one below show that alcohol was never part of most American Indian cultures – that came after the Europeans arrived.

        Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. Arlene B. Hirschfelder, Paulette Fairbanks Molin. Facts On File, Incorporated, 2001.

  4. keen January 15, 2014 at 8:42 am - Reply

    native americans still exist…ask THEM if you want to know cause and effect…alcohol is a failed tool for manifestdestiny…just like crack released in harlem…

  5. David Myers July 27, 2014 at 11:35 pm - Reply

    Some Meso-American cultures certainly drank fermented beverages, all sugary liquids ferment without much knowledge or forethought of those who drink them. It is ridiculous to believe that native Americans hadn’t figured out how to at least make wine / beer.
    As for alcoholism is certainly more pronounced when distilled spirit are available to be sure. That -distillation process was a European invention.

  6. Maire November 30, 2014 at 11:05 pm - Reply

    Melissa, you should really have done your research first before tackling the issue of alcoholism and genetics. Far from being a “myth” the relationship between Native American ancestry and predisposition to alcoholism continues to be the subject of serious and ongoing study. A Google Scholar search “Native American” + alcohol + genetics returns literally thousands of results, recent scholarly papers from peer-reviewed journals analyzing the genetic component of alcohol dependence. Our knowledge of how genes shape our physiology and behavior has increased exponentially just in the past 15 years. The quote you cited from the DHS is not only ancient (1976), it is contradicted numerous times within the DHS’s own article: E.g., “Genetic differences in these enzymes may help to explain why some ethnic groups have higher or lower rates of alcohol-related problems.”

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