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In Search of the Drunken Native

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In a March 3, 2012 New York Times article, “At Tribe’s Door, a Hub of Beer and Heartache,” reporter Timothy Williams provides yet another account of the terrible consequences associated with alcohol consumption among native Americans.  This article, which of course joins many others on the same topic, touches on a number of familiar points, in particular the assumed collective susceptibility of Native Americans to alcohol and their vulnerability to the agents of capitalism.

Whiteclay, Nebraska is a ramshackle hamlet on the border not only of South Dakota but of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—which has banned alcohol since the 1970s. There, a small number of  white beer store owners sell annually almost five million cans of beer and malt liquor—almost all to members of the Oglala Sioux tribe.

Whiteclay, NE Pop: 14; Annual revenues from alcohol sales: $3 million

These are the latest version of the unscrupulous white traders who have populated the narratives of Native American drinking since the seventeenth century.  In this case, they offer to cash income tax checks for a 3 percent commission and selling 30 packs of Bud for a price higher than that charged in New York City and more than twice the going price in most of the country.  In this account the ravages of alcohol consumption involve virtually every family.  “As an indication of the depth of the problem,” the Times notes that even a tribal vice president, a leader in the fight to restrict alcohol sales in Whiteclay, was recently arrested on alcohol-related charges.  In 2011 tribal police made 20,000 alcohol-related arrests in a reservation with an apparently undifferentiated population of 45,000.

The article reminds us that this is not just a problem for the Oglala Sioux, but for Native Americans generally.  Without an explanation for the leap to a national/racial scope, we’re reminded that about one third of U.S. reservations ban alcohol and that “excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of preventable death among American Indians.”  And in fact the threat of extinction lurks in this article as it has in accounts of native drinking for four centuries.  As one tribal police captain notes, “not to disrespect our elders and ancestors, but we’ve gone through several generations.”

When It's Time to Lose Command over Yourself

In his famous 1802 testimony to Thomas Jefferson, Chief Little Turtle told the President, “your children have not that command over themselves which you have, therefore, before anything can be done to advantage, this evil must be remedied.”And so the Oglala Sioux, implicitly recognizing that they “have not that command over themselves,” have gone to court to lay blame for their affliction not only on the beer stores in Whiteclay but  the Anheuser-Busch company that produces the high-alcohol Hurricane High Gravity Lager that is the current drink of choice in Pine Ridge. The purpose of this post is not to dismiss or intellectualize away the enormous problems linked to alcohol in many of the nation’s Native American communities, but to invite discussion about  the remarkably persistent and pervasive mythology of the drunken native and of the more general susceptibility of aboriginal (or “indigenous”) people to alcohol. 

Which one of us, having revealed in conversation our interest in alcohol or drug history, has not become involved in a discussion of Indian drinking—a discussion that begins (on the part of our new acquaintances) with the assumption of racial susceptibility to both addiction to alcohol and wild drunkenness?  And if you’re a world traveler or talk now and then to visitors from other parts, you can easily find yourself in a similar conversation—with the subject being the “native” peoples of South Africa, or New Zealand, or Polynesia, or especially Australia.  Reports of Aboriginal drinking in the Australian outback bear a remarkable similarity to those about Native Americans.  And in Australia, too, Aboriginal communities are fighting back: re-imposing old “colonial” restrictions on alcohol and attacking the purveyors of booze, and acknowledging that they “have not that command over themselves.”

Native drinking practice has been, of course, one of the most important areas of inquiry for scholars of alcohol and drugs.  Those not familiar with this literature can refer to Peter Mancall’s superb study, Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America (Cornell University Press, 1995) for a systematic and measured account of the role of alcohol in the colonization of North America and a comprehensive discussion of the scholarship on “native” drinking.  As Mancall points out, this work has tended to veer between extremes of genetic determinism on the one hand and on the other of social and cultural construction.  What is missing in all of this, however, is any kind of thorough investigation of this potent trope—”the Drunken Native” (or its North American version, “the Drunken Indian”).

Time out of Mind

How is it that the supposed drunken disposition of native peoples (and particularly Native Americans) and their threatened extinction in the face of the scourge of alcohol has captured the international imagination and has surfaced time after time, across several continents and centuries?

I ask this question from the perspective of a historian of Africa.  Beginning in the late nineteenth century (and much earlier in South Africa) and continuing down to the present, areas in West, Central and southern Africa have periodically faced crises (as they were described) of alcohol abuse.  Invariably, in the midst of these “crises” the specter of the “drunken native” was invoked, along with the threat that Africans would face the same putative fate as their “indigenous” comrades elsewhere—and in particular North America.

I have been especially struck by the power of this mythology as I have investigated the debates over the impact of alcohol and possible alcohol restriction in West Africa—in Nigeria and Ghana (then the Gold Coast)—in the period from the 1880s to the 1930s.  In the context of a very substantial trade in cheap gin manufactured in Europe and a highly vocal international campaign to suppress it, educated and elite West Africans argued the merits.  Although this was hardly a dominant voice, accomplished African professionals repeatedly warned that Africans, collectively as a race, faced disaster if imports were not prohibited and drinking curbed.  To make their case, they cited the historical experience of the native peoples of the Americas (and sometimes Australia as well).

Although there was no evidence that West African peoples faced population decline or removal at the hands of white settlers, these men nevertheless linked themselves in a kind of global, threatened, indigenous community that “have not that command over themselves.”  As they did so, they drew on a story they knew their readers or listeners would be familiar with—the story of the drunken Indian.  Although their audience typically included other elite West Africans and a British public both in West Africa and in the metropole, their assertions suggest that they were entirely confident that even if their readers did not entirely share their sense of the threat posed by alcohol in West Africa they did share a belief that the alcohol trade had driven Native Americans to the brink of annihilation and in some cases over it.

The persistence of the “drunken native” is a complex tale tied to evolving understandings of human difference, to the development of European imperialism, the expansion of commercial capitalism and an emerging global sympathy and nostalgia for indigenous peoples—and it sometimes implicates those people themselves. In its basic elements the tale is also remarkably

Ownership Society

consistent—establishing a chain of interpretation that links European observers in colonial North America, to Chief Little Turtle, to James Fenimore Cooper, to turn-of-the-century West Africans, to present day readers of the New York Times– including those whom you have encountered at parties who ask, “isn’t it true that…?”


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