By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
We are in the middle of debate within our community concerning the accessibility of alcohol to our people; if it is a good idea for the Tribe to loosen restrictions on alcoholic beverages on the Boundary. Some say we should not allow alcohol any further into our community than it is already. Some say laws should be rolled back to ban alcohol sales from tribal lands entirely. Others say that the “cat is already out of the bag” and we are losing out on revenue opportunities by restricting sales when municipalities that within walking distance are allowing sales and making millions of dollars. They feel that the impact of alcohol will not change because access on the Boundary changes. Still, others say that in addition to the physical hazards of alcohol, that it is a betrayal of our heritage because alcohol use and abuse was little to non-existent before first contact. The right answer to the puzzle of alcohol seems to lay in shades of grey that no one seems to able to articulate well.
Whatever your opinion on this issue, you probably hold that belief because of your personal experience. I don’t know anyone personally that can’t share a story or two about a drunk uncle, father, or friend. In fact, one of my uncles lived almost his entire adult life tied to booze. He lived a vagabond existence. From my earliest memories as a child, he would typically come to my mother’s house (mom’s brother) when he was out of money and out of luck. He would usually arrive drunk, begging for a place to stay for a while so that he could dry out and make enough money to leave on his next adventure. He would be gone for a few weeks or months; then he would arrive again to repeat the cycle. Sometimes, he would come in pretty banged up, where he would stagger around and fall into an asphalt road or tumble down a rocky embankment. Other times, he would show up having been mugged outside a bar or just staggering down a street. He would have knots on his head, bruises, and cuts on his body from the beatings. When he would drink, he would drink until he was numb. He would do and say things that he could not remember as he sobered up. He didn’t care who he hurt with his words or his actions. We loved my uncle, and each time we would see him, we would take him in, attend to whatever wounds he would have, get good meals in him, and give him a place to live and hopefully start over. He would start over, but not the way we would hope. He would clean up for a while, even find a job and work for a while. But, when he would save up enough money, he would sneak alcohol back to our home or would pack up and disappear until the next time he ran out of luck.
My uncle used alcohol as a pain killer. You see, when he was a young man, he was in a car accident with his younger brother that resulted in his brother’s death. Mom believes that my uncle was at the wheel, although he could never remember for sure. He always blamed himself for his brother’s death.
My uncle was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He had a great singing voice and could pick a guitar like no body’s business, to use my mom’s turn-of-phrase. It meant he was good. When I was in single digits in age, I can remember begging him to play and sing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and he could do it almost as good as Johnny. When he was sober, there was not a kinder, sweeter man on the planet. Under the influence of alcohol, he had a different personality – cussing, hateful, and mean. He would try to fight anyone, including children. He would get so drunk he could not crawl, much less walk. There were times when we would find him lying in his urine and vomit.
His story does have a happy ending, sort of. Very late in life, he found someone that he fell in love with, got married, professed Christian faith and stopped drinking. For a couple of years, he led an alcohol-free life. Then, his wife died. He was alone, and I thought he would go back to booze. He didn’t. He lived alone for another few years and died of a heart attack. Mom got worried because she hadn’t had contact with him for a few days, went to his house and found him, laying on the floor beside his dining room, beside a table with a cup of coffee on it. It looked like he had been drinking it when the attack hit him, and he just fell out of the chair.
I imagine that many of you have similar stories of loved ones or friends who chose to allow alcohol to be the pain killer in their lives. They have experienced trauma of some sort and they try to numb their minds to it with beer, wine, or liquor. Sometimes, we make substitutions in our life for the things that leave us or go wrong for us. It is a choice they make.
Not everyone chooses to dull his pain with alcohol. There are many people who drink socially, whether they just enjoy the taste or to fit in with the crowd. They drink in moderation and do not lose control of their minds and bodies. It is a choice they make.
Many of the people who come out against alcohol are either recovering alcoholics or people who have seen the negative impact in the home or community from alcoholism. There are those who act like they think alcohol has a mind of its own and is looking to hook innocent people into using it to excess. Like any other inanimate object, alcohol cannot do anything with someone to control it. Alcohol cannot force someone to ingest it. A person must act for alcohol to do anything.
I know that this information seems very elementary to many of you, but many of us also really don’t get it. The issues that we are having with alcohol, drugs, and other health and criminal issues will not be solved with bans or restricting access. Try as we might, we will never create an environment where people who want a thing will not be able to get it.
We must work on changing the minds and society so that we provide a good alternative to alcohol, drugs, or whatever else is used to kill the pain that troubles an addict. My uncle was mentally running away from a life where he perceived himself to be a bad person. He felt unloved and unwanted, even though we tried to give him a loving environment in which to recover. But through decades of abusing alcohol, he did not find the loving environment he was looking for until very late in life. It was too easy just to go back to what he knew best, even if it provided only temporary comfort.
As I was growing up, I was told that Indians were genetically predisposed to being alcoholics. Some still believe that today. Indians are not any more likely to be drunks than other nationalities because of their genetic makeup. It is the environment that our generations dealt with that causes the higher incidence of alcoholism in our tribes.
According to recovery.org, “Native Americans have some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse among minority groups. Certain factors may contribute to the development of alcohol use disorders among Native Americans as well as prevent them from seeking help. Economic issues, cultural loss, domestic abuse, and physical and mental health issues may put Native Americans at higher risk of alcoholism.
Economic disadvantage: Native Americans have high rates of unemployment and low rates of high school and college completion, and they are less likely to have medical insurance and access to healthcare. Poor education, poverty, and limited resources may contribute to greater use of alcohol.
Cultural loss: Native American culture was significantly threatened after Europeans colonized the United States. Some sources speculate that the brutality and loss experienced by Native Americans, including loss of family members and tribes, land, and traditions, led to historical trauma. This unresolved grief has been transmitted across generations from parents to children, which has led to the development of negative coping mechanisms such as drinking.
History of abuse: Throughout history, Native American children have been involuntarily taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. Children did not have contact with their families and lived in schools with poor conditions, harsh discipline, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Some children turned to alcohol to cope with the turmoil.
Physical health problems: Native Americans have high rates of physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, liver disease, hepatitis, and stroke. Native Americans are also at higher risk of being hurt in unintentional accidents and having children die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Chronic illnesses can lead to significant stress and increase the risk of alcohol abuse.
Mental health problems: Native Americans experience high rates of mental illness and suicide. The suicide rate among Native American teens is 2.5 times greater than the national average. Native Americans also have high rates of co-occurring disorders, which refers to having both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem. Having a mental illness or having a loved one suffer from one can cause a great deal of distress.” (www.recovery.org)
I don’t know the answer to the question of if we should have alcohol sales on the Boundary and it is not what I want to debate. My hope is more personal than that. If we know what the trigger points are for addiction, be it obesity, alcohol, or opioids, and we know that most of those triggers are societal, then why are we, as a community, as a government, as individuals, so focused on restricting access to products and not focusing on societal education and integration programs? We can choose to create an environment in which we are communicative on a personal, intimate level, instead of through a Facebook page. The more digital our relationships are, the more isolated we become. We have slowly but surely created the environment for addiction to thrive. Only when we take ownership and control of that will we make significant progress in the fight against addiction.