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Hard Facts: Alcoholism and Drug Abuse on Reservations

One may think that those living on Native American reservations should feel acceptance and a sense of belonging because they are among their tribe. However, the reality of life on many reservations is one that involves abuse, heavy drinking, and drugs. It is part of our mission to change the quality of life on those reservations and encourage physical and spiritual healing.

The Ongoing Effect Of Historical Trauma

When colonization came to America, the Native tribes were forced off their land. They were told to forego their beliefs and traditions and conform to the white man’s ways. Children found themselves being relocated into boarding schools in which they were psychologically, physically, and sexually abused by those whom they were supposed to trust. When those who attended these schools returned to their tribe, they brought with them their trauma which slowly infected the tribes.

The Native American reservation was seen as a place in which one could reconnect with their heritage. However, many on the reservation sought solace in drugs and alcohol. They reached for these things to numb the pain caused by a loss of identity. Generation after generation, the trauma of the past lingered.

Those who reside on the reservations saw this as part of daily life. Many even witnessed alcohol and drug abuse as part of their family life. Thinking this is the norm, many copied what they observed around them. The issue has become intergenerational. 

A Recent Example Of The Problem

Since 1974, the JAMA network has been tracing the history of substance and alcohol abuse of youth living on or near Native American reservations. In their recent survey, JAMA states that this cohort (which consists of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders) has the highest use of substance abuse than any other ethnic group. 

Lifetime prevalence rates for Native American 8th graders were identified as:

  • 43.7% for marijuana
  • 39.7% for alcohol 
  • 29.7% for tobacco/cigarettes
  • 22.9% of this same group have stated that they have been drunk 

Similar results were reported for those children in the 10th and 12th grades. An exception was made for 10th graders, where their was a 55.6% lifetime prevalence of marijuana use. 

JAMA states that: 

“…American [Natives] adolescents who reside on or near reservations continue a trend of using nearly all substances at substantially higher rates than adolescents from a nationally representative sample.”

Factors Contributing to Alcohol and Substance Abuse

We mentioned that substance abuse issues can be seen as normative for many families living on reservations. Factors that lead to this situation are:

  • Economic disadvantage: Many American Natives live below the poverty line. This can make it a challenge for them to afford healthcare. Additionally, access to the medical system can be difficult due to a lack of transportation from the reserve to a medical center.
  • Childhood abuse: As we touched upon earlier, historically many children were forcibly removed from their families and placed into boarding schools. Within this setting, they were told to “assimilate”. Many experienced emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Like all addictions, the abuse of alcohol and drugs were used to self-medicate for the trauma they were dealing with. 
  • Co-occurrence of issues: Due to varying factors, emotional and mental health issues are common within the Native American community. In fact, they are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the American average. Drinking and substance abuse problems co-exist with these psychological issues.  

For youth, they are exposed to their peers or elders drinking or taking drugs. This can lead the child to accept that this is a normal way to live. Peer pressure can also come to play a part. Also, as children reach adolescence there is a temptation to experiment with alcohol and drugs. This isn’t confined merely to Native Americans but can extend to the teenage population as a whole. 

Furthermore, facing an uncertain future, as well as racism, can perpetuate Native Americans seeking alcohol and drugs to cope.  

The Reservation Can Provide the Answer

It may seem paradoxical that those living on reservations are exposed to dysfunctional lifestyles, yet also provide ways to grow. Life on the reservation allows Native Americans to be in touch with their culture and heritage – a heritage that was originally devoid of substance abuse. 

Culturally sensitive treatment centers and support programs are proving to be effective at helping individuals overcome alcohol and substance dependency. Evidence-based, culturally sensitive alcohol and drug addiction rehabs are on the rise. A variety of Native Americans are taking back their lives by attending such programs, working Steps, and going to meetings. This benefits the reservation because as they overcome their dependency on alcohol or drugs, they can offer guidance and help to others residing on the reservation.  

As more and more Native Americans confront and deal with their alcohol and substance abuse, life on the reservations can change. People will see that there is another way – a way that embraces and celebrates the Native American traditions and identity.  

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