In the Native American community, alcoholism is an ever-looming presence that hovers over everyone in the tribe. Luckily for me, I have inside connections into the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, who have helped me to write on the subject. To get the ball rolling I asked my connections what the reason was for the high alcoholism rate. They had a lot to say on the topic!

Originally Native Americans were nomadic, had millions of acres of land, used to travel, and hunt buffalo. However, when there was westward expansion, the US government wanted to restrict their movement to reservations. Most of which had poor, non-farmable land. The tribes that cooperated with the government and didn’t resist or go to war got the better land for essentially handing over their rights.

The reservations restricted the Native Americans and took away their entire lively hood. They were a nomadic people that suddenly were no longer able to move around. Their food sources were taken away and so their entire diet had to change as well. They had no way of getting their own food while being restricted to the reservations, and so people had to bring it in. They brought in wheat flour and alcohol, which devastated the tribe. According to my connection, who grew up on the reservation, there is around a 40-50 percent alcoholism rate.

The Natives diets were very different than that of western culture, and their bodies respond very differently to alcohol. Their bodies break down alcohol a lot slower, they get drunk faster, and they stay drunk longer. Their genetics also make alcohol far more addicting!

So why do the Natives still drink alcohol even though they know this? Well for starters the high schools graduate barely more than half of each freshman class. And the unemployment estimates exceed 75 percent!1 They drink for a number of reasons: depressing things around the neighborhoods, want to be numbed, feel better, forget about worries—plus what else are you going to do with all your free time if you can’t find a job?

They are idle in the current welfare system because of the unemployment rate—just like in the inner city/ghetto. No work means people have extra free time, nothing to look forward to, no responsibility, and no hope. Because all they’ve known is defeat, and have no expectations, no future, and no opportunity around them, it is very easy to see why alcohol would be a popular past time.

Native American children are being exposed to alcohol almost right out of the womb. According to my connection, kids are getting drunk in elementary school, some even earlier than that! Children form their beliefs about drinking from watching their parents’ drinking patterns – the amount they drink and how often. When drinking in excess becomes an everyday event, children perceive this to be normal. So it is no surprise that these children are emulating this drinking pattern. The only surprise is their age!

I also learned from my connection that the educational emphasis in the community is pretty much solely on high school. The lack of emphasis on college goes back in history through the generations. Most parents of the current generation didn’t graduate from college—so they aren’t pushing their kids to. In fact, most want them to stay home and try to help contribute to the family.

Not only that, but it is more challenging for one to just leave the reservation in general for college. According to my source, parental support is very important for Natives in college, because they are leaving everything they know behind them. People don’t look, act, think, or have the same perspective on life as them either—which is a lot for a 18-19 year old to handle on their own. Most parents in the reservations have never encountered such a situation and don’t know how to offer the support that their child would need.

The Native Americans used to not be allowed to leave the reservations at all. They can now, but most couldn’t even leave the reservations if they wanted to. Without a job there is no money for a car and there are no cities around, so they are pretty much stuck where they are. My contact told me to imagine life in the reservation like this: Imagine you are on house arrest and you cant leave for months, you can’t move around, and you can’t hold a job—you’d get lazy and depressed pretty quick! So it is no surprise that Native Americans also have the highest suicide rate out of all the ethnic groups in America.2

My connection informed me that although alcoholism is imbedded into the community, it is not talked about and hardly ever addressed. It is considered a taboo topic because it hits so close to home to pretty much everyone. Some families are already in the 3rd/4th/5th generation of alcoholism. There is hardly any support for alcoholism in the tribes, and without any jobs or hope, most don’t see a good reason to stop drinking.

I feel the best way to help the Native Americans is to find way to help and encourage the children to make it past high school and into college. Kids need encouragement, to be told that they can do it—And that’s something that is definitely not currently being offered by their families.

The American Indian College Fund is one place to start.