Putting A Racist Myth To Bed: American Indians Don’t Drink More

Here's how racism gave rise to a pesky rumor about American Indians that the science doesn't support

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Mar 01, 2016 at 10:26 AM ET

Despite decades of racism and pseudoscience, American Indians do not have higher rates of alcohol consumption than whites, according to a new study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. While the findings will hopefully dispel harmful myths about American Indians, they also raise new questions about the factors involved in American Indians’ dramatically higher rates of alcoholic liver disease.

The findings, “allow us to get rid of the stereotype of ‘the drunken Indian’ that has persisted for several decades in the media and in general public thought,” co-author Teshia Solomon, director of the University of Arizona’s Native American Research and Training Center, told The Washington Post.

The American Indian “firewater” myth, the basis for the modern stereotype, goes something like this: European settlers arrived in North America and immediately began selling liquor to American Indians who had never experienced the powerful stuff. Because of a supposed genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse, American Indian populations fell victim to higher rates of drinking than other populations. To this day, the myth goes, American Indians are simply predisposed to alcoholism.

Given its racist historical origins, it’s hard to take the “firewater” myth seriously, but small parts of it crept into scientific discourse anyway. Even the NIH has published materials suggesting American Indians may be genetically predisposed to alcoholism, despite the fact that no genetic study has ever supported that conclusion.

The only grain of truth in the entire myth is that several studies have shown that American Indians are more likely to die of alcohol-related diseases, including liver disease, than whites and other minorities. Based on these findings, reputable organizations from the Indian Health Service to the National Institutes of Health have declared that American Indians have abnormally high rates of alcohol consumption—albeit for less overtly far-fetched reasons. The NIH, for instance, cites low self-esteem among tribal youth as a possible cause.

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But when scientists at the University of Arizona took a closer look at rates of alcohol consumption by demographic, they found a surprising trend. After scouring both the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (with data from more than 4,000 American Indians and 170,000 whites) and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey (21,000 American Indians, 1 million whites), researchers concluded that American Indians were no more likely to drink to excess than anyone else—and that they were significantly more likely than whites to choose to abstain from alcohol entirely.

The findings, while comforting, raise a disturbing possibility—namely, that the higher rates of alcoholic liver disease, a spectrum of liver injuries including cirrhosis and fatty liver disease, that exist among American Indians populations are not necessarily due to higher rates of alcohol consumption, as previously thought. The authors posit that American Indians may instead have an “elevated genetic risk for developing liver disease when consuming alcohol,” but acknowledge that only limited research has been conducted on the relationship. In other words, we may not know how to prevent American Indians from dying from liver disease, because we may not know what’s causing it.

“If you’re looking at one cause and it’s another cause, you’re missing the true issue,” Solomon told the Washington Post. “If it’s attributed to alcohol versus hepatitis C, or looking at diabetes or obesity or some other issue that may be causing it, you can’t intercept and do the right form of treatment.”

Meanwhile, the authors stress that the findings should not be used as an excuse to reduce the already meager health services available to American Indians and other minorities fighting substance abuse. In fact, studies have shown that American Indians have higher rates of illicit drug use compared to other demographics. If anything, studies such as these should help public health officials tailor medical care, education and advocacy.