Why is alcohol addiction so high in native culture?
KJ Mullins-Toronto: One in five people admitted to hospital for alcohol-related diseases are Aboriginal. Alcohol plays a factor in many of the crimes concerning Native peoples. Why is alcohol such a problem in Native communities?
In four northern Ontario Aboriginal communities about 80 percent of crimes involve alcohol abuse. Alcohol addiction is one of the largest barriers when it comes to overcoming poverty, education hurdles and violence in First Nations communities. How did this come to be?
Our ancestors play a factor on how our bodies deal with the food we take in. This is also true with how we metabolize alcohol. For those whose family trees started in Europe and the Near East it means a higher tolerance for alcohol while other cultures such as Native Peoples have gene combinations that do not metabolize alcohol as quickly.
Many believe that Europeans brought the first alcohol to North America. That’s a misconception in part, some southwestern tribes did have alcohol used for ceremonial purposes. There were rules to consumption with severe punishments, even death, when the rules were broken.
Most Native peoples though were not exposed to alcohol until the first European settlers came across the ocean. While the earliest settlers did not use alcohol as a means for trade by 1650 it was a mainstay in the fur industry.
In Canada Aboriginal communities did not have alcohol or a brewing tradition. When alcohol entered into the picture binge drinking became common place. It was so much a problem that in 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company no longer used alcohol in trade.
When alcohol was first brought into the picture Native peoples for the most part were suspicious. They questioned a drink that made grown men act so foolish believing it was degrading. In the early years most Native drinking took place only when they were making social or business deals with the settlers. How that consumption pattern changed depended on a large part on who the Native people were sitting at the table with. Daily consumption of alcohol didn’t become a societial problem until modeling of ‘frontier drinking’ became more intertwined into the culture. As alcohol became a tool of trade and a means to political exploitation so did alcoholism.
European settlers also began to believe myths about Native drinking, believing that they were superior since they could hold their drink better. In this culture an entire race was grouped together as opposed to the society’s individual ‘town drunk.’
Beer and wine were common in Europe for thousands of years. In many cases these beverages were healthier to consume than local water. Because of centuries of consumption the alleles in the 2 gene families (ADH and ALDH) are wired in a way that frequent drinking of alcohol have in time become more rapidly absorbed by the body than for other cultures. This, in simple terms, means that for the most part those with a mostly European gene pool can drink more with less chance of alcoholism and alcohol related problems than other cultures.
Early on tribal leaders saw that the ‘white man’s poison’ was destructive. They called for banning alcohol as a means of trade. They had seen traders bring in dozens of kegs to a village, wait for the villagers to become intoxicated and then make off with a season’s worth of skins.
They watched as alcohol consumption started fighting among their people. While there are cases of the elders and women drinking at this time most of the drinking took place with the young strong men who were bringing in the furs. When alcohol was available these younger people would drink it quickly resulting in a drunken state, often with violent tendencies.
Alcohol dehydrogenase also differs between genders and age. Young women are less able to process alcohol than young men for this reason. Research has found that those with slower metabolizing forms of ADH2 and ADH3 or mutations of those genes are more prone to become addicted to alcohol.
As alcohol became a problem the tribes began to break down. More and more European influences came into place taking away centuries old customs. Native peoples became caught between two worlds, their own past and the new white society. Treaties were signed and broken, displacement to remote areas took place. The old cultures were broken away piece by piece until only a few practiced the olden ways. As a society Native people lost their footing with European norms replacing sacred ways.
Today this cultural patterning is still very much in place. The ‘white man’s poison’ is still destroying a culture with generation upon generation dealing with addiction. With the addiction comes poverty. It’s a never ending circle.