Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Alcohol: The Downfall of Native Americans
  A brief history of alcohol and Native Americans, the motives behind the promotion of alcohol amongst tribes, and the negative effects on tribal traditions that transpired from it. 

Source : http://www.iroquoisdemocracy.pdx.edu/html/furtrader.htm 

Created by: Emily LaForme
History 303


   What started out as a simple question of "Why does it seem like Native Americans struggle with alcohol so much?" based on personal experiences, led me to take an interest on how alcohol effected Native American tribes post-colonization, especially during the United States expansion period.

   At the initial start of my research, I had no idea just how manipulated American Indians had been by the introduction of European alcohol by the white settlers during the early days of our nation. Thus, I came to understand that alcohol was introduced as a method of "easing tensions" during trade arrangements, leading to a higher and higher dependence on alcohol which is seemingly still very prevalent today. 

   There's a theory out in the world that Native Americans cannot process alcohol as easily as that of other races, and while I don't necessarily delve into that area, I think it is important to consider before looking at my research, which I have broken into units. Personally, as a Native Indian myself, I have seen alcohol use before my eyes amongst my family and my clan, and I can certainly draw an agreement to that assumption.

   In order for me to even consider trying to take a poke at whether or not we as a people can or cannot handle alcohol as well as other races, I knew it was important to turn to the historical data first. 

   With that being said, here is my research on the history of how alcohol was used to manipulate the Native peoples of the early U.S. 

Alcohol Origins

An 18th century illustration of the first Thanksgiving. Source: http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/24/thanksgiving-is-some-native-americans-day-of-mourning/
Native Americans
   It is impossible to claim that European settlers were the first to introduce Native American tribes to alcohol. While there was a form of alcohol present before colonization took place, the alcohol was nowhere near the equivalent of what the white men were drinking. Most of the small amount of alcohol use came from the Southwestern part of the United States, and even then, the alcohol content itself was very weak at only "(8%-14%)" (3) and was typically only intended for "ceremonial purposes" (2) as opposed to recreational enjoyment. 

Tribal or primitive alcohols differed not just in alcohol content, but in "lactic acid fermentation giving them a tangy and sour taste, contain various additives such as honey or fruits, and vary in viscosity from clear liquids, to soupy mixtures with suspended solids, to pastes," (4). 

   Colonists were typically more inclined to drink for entertainment, and alcohol was also more commonplace. Alcohol soon became incorporated into trade quickly, and "the tribes had little time to develop social, legal, or moral guidelines to regulate alcohol use," (2). The alcohol being traded would not have been the low-content creations the tribes may have been accustomed to, but rather the distilled and purified high-content beverage the colonists had mastered. 

    Binge drinking was a common practice amongst European colonists, as they "encouraged rapid drinking to avoid the detection and confiscation of alcohol, (2)" especially in periods of prohibition and social distaste. 

Alcohol and Trade

Fur traders doing business with Native Americans in 1777, with a barrel of rum.By William Faden - Library and Archives Canada - originally from: Cartouche from William Faden, "A map of the Inhabited Part of Canada from the French Surveys; with the Frontiers of New York and New England", 1777, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1196945

    While there are many theories and arguments for how exactly alcohol was placed into the hands of Native Americans and into their stomachs, a standout instance of alcohol introduction would be in the use of trade between tribes and white traders. 

   Fine furs, material, guns, livestock, and other fineries were traded back and forth between the tribes and the traders, a prominent proponent was alcohol, which composed a large part of the trade deal.  “Alcohol, mainly rum but also brandy and other spirits, was ubiquitous in the lives of native peoples, (2)” within the 1800’s. 

  Alcohol was “a standard trade item and an important element of the diplomatic councils and political transactions, (1) ” used between local tribes and white settlers looking to maintain peace and further their own interests, as they "found that providing free alcohol during trading sessions gave them a distinct advantage in their negotiations," (2). 

Alcohol was a vessel for understanding, and “was used to open and seal treaty negotiations, maintain alliances, and create new ones, (1)” which limited any negative disputes that could potentially arise.

1722 woodcut of Native Americans with various western goods that they received in trade for furs.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=486160

   Once alcohol was introduced, American Indians began walking a path that they were unable to control. The colonists may not have necessarily introduced alcohol to Native Americans, but they certainly manipulated and abused their influence with it, which led to larger and larger problems for Native Americans as time would go on. 

Cultural Interference

      Native Americans originally created alcohol for the use of traditional ceremonies, and, after the introduction to more potent alcohol, continued to be used so. With the new alcohol, it "led to drunkenness and contributed to social problems,” (1) that hadn't been present prior. 
   Alcohol was becoming an epidemic amongst American Indian tribes and led to an "increase in violence and death, and undermined native health," (1) that was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Writing for the 1847 US government report, ethnologist H. R. Schoolcraft stated “It is strange how all the Indian nations, and almost every person among them, male and female, are infatuated with the love of strong drink. They know no bounds to their desire, (5)." 

   Scholars have already alluded to the "little to no time" that Native Americans had in order to adjust and understand the higher quality alcohol that had been thrust upon them, but it became even more evident as time wore on. Native Americans had fallen prey to trying to keep up with their new neighbors, and had in a sense, taken on more than they could chew. 
    Health related issues were certainly sprouting up amongst tribes, namely alcoholism, but alcohol was also taking a toll on the welfare of tribal customs, abandoning "the civility necessary to maintain community, (1)" and eventually "destabilized village economics and led communities into poverty, (1).” 

  Alcohol was also weakening the power of the Native Americans significantly, as it "made individual Indians less reliable hunters and allies, (1)" and overall weakened relations between tribes in a time when they certainly would have benefitted from stranding together. According to a scholar, "Many Indian people believe that the loss of their culture is the primary cause of many of their existing social problems, especially those associated with alcohol, (2)."
   The Indian Removal Act was the start of an even greater period of pain for all Native Americans, and it was greatly illustrated by the fact that the tribes simply couldn't get themselves to band together. Alcohol may not have been a direct source as to why tribal relations was failing, but it certainly contributed to a weakness that eventually could not be overcome.