Summer/Fall 2003 
Volume 4, Number 33
The First Annual Wellbriety Roast!
Volume 4, Number 32
Recovery Month in Indian Country
Volume 4, Number 31
Turning to One Another (Part 2)
Volume 4, Number 30
Turning to One Another (Part 1)
Volume 4, Number 29
The Wellbriety Movement
Volume 4, Number 27
Meet the Elders! #2
Volume 4, Number 26
Meet the Elders! #1
Volume 4, Number 25
Sober Leadership for the New Millennium
Volume 4, Number 24
Native American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact
Volume 4, Number 23
FOURTH ANNUAL Circles of Recovery Conference
Volume 4, Number 22
Good Morning!!
Volume 4, Number 21
Joining North and South in Resistance and in Healing
Volume 4, Number 20
Come to the Conference! Albuquerque, New Mexico
Volume 4, Number 19
Wellbriety Month and the Circles of Recovery Conference
 Printer Version (pdf) of Wellbriety! Summer: Volume4, Number23

Circles of Recovery Conference
Albuquerque, New Mexico, September, 2003

Native American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact Addictions Researcher Bill White Speaks at the Conference

Cover Photos
1-Don Coyhis (center) talks to Conference participants who will carry in the Hoop of 100 Eagle Feathers during one of the Hoop entries during the Conference.

2-Brandon James (right) and Conference young people proudly show drawings created by youth who participated at the Conference.

3-Peggy Berryhill (left) of the AIROS (American Indian Radio On Satellite) network interviews a conference participant for a feature radio broadcast that will air in December, 2003 or January, 2004 over one of the AIROS stations.

4-Theda New Breast (left) roasts Sam English (right) during a hilarious honoring session for the artist and recovery advocate on Friday night.

5-Elders Horace Axtell (Nez Perce) (left), Bill Iron Moccasin (Lakota) (center), and Ozzie Williamson (Blackfeet), visit with conference participants in one of two Elder's panels that took place during the Conference.

Welcome to the Circles of Recovery Conference, 2003

How cool is that?!

Some 375 participants shared in the Fourth Annual White Bison Circles of Recovery Conference from September 18 to the 21st of 2003 in bright and sunny in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a happy, peaceful, informative and traditional conference with lots of networking taking place, lots of learning, and lots of visiting with old friends.

Don Coyhis, Founder and President of White Bison, opened the Conference Thursday evening, September 18 with the words, "It makes you feel really proud to be an Indian when we listen to our elders tell us how the sobriety movement got going back in their youth in the 1940's and 50's. We did it ourselves, inside of our own camp. As Indians, we knew this had to be. Since then, Indian sobriety has grown and we've partnered with many different organizations that make things like this conference possible."

We all felt a lot of Unity and Joining Together at this year's conference because there were speakers and participants from all Four Directions present. It was a real watershed year for the Wellbriety Movement. As this reporter wandered through the conference and experienced all the goings on, he kept hearing two words over and over again: Its Working! We've all come up a long road through our own personal recoveries and wellness journeys. It's been pretty long and hard, but the Wellbriety tree is definitely bearing fruit. It's time to enjoy some of those apples, peaches, pears and plums, and to share their abundance with our brothers and sisters in our communities and nations.

The conference began Thursday evening with Grand Entry of the Hoop and a prayer by Nez Perce Elder Horace Axtell. It ended on Sunday with an unplanned ceremony from the Eastern Direction performed by Mr. Nghia Tran of Thailand, now living in Walnut, California. In this, and in the next few issues of Wellbriety! magazine we will try to give you, the reader, an idea of what good words were said throughout the conference, and share some conference photos.

The theme of this year's conference is Strengthening Our Nations. It takes healthy, sober and well leadership to stand and speak for the people in tribal, as well as non Native leadership. Don set the stage for the entire conference when he said, "There is a saying that goes, 'When the people lead, the leaders will follow.' After we get sober and start working on our wellness we begin drawing a boundary for ourselves. We say, 'I'm no longer available for that.' You start to establish a perimeter of availability and it's a sign of health. As we begin to expand wellness to our communities the day comes when the community starts putting those healthy boundaries around itself. We have a right to be led by sober leaders. We can insist on it if we want to. We don't have to wait to do this. When we start to be honest and have integrity, that's when we have our power. When we start to treat one another with respect and dignity, it's a form of power in the community. We have a right to do that and I think we're beginning to think in that manner."

Learning the historical truth about Indian resistance to alcohol is an important step in strengthening Native nations because many misleading ideas about Indians and alcohol have been passed off as truth. William L. White is a popular addictions researcher who plays an important role in the recovery advocacy movement that is growing in North America. Bill is a nationally recognized author and speaker on recovery. He is a senior research consultant at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington, Illinois, and author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Bill White and Don Coyhis are currently working together on a book about the true history of Indians and alcohol.

We are honored and pleased now to present the first part of an edited transcript of his talk in this issue of Wellbriety! Magazine. The concluding part of the talk is found in Wellbriety! Magazine, Volume 4, Number 24.

Richard Simonelli

Native American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact
A Talk by William L. White, M.A.
Given at the Fourth Annual Circles of Recovery Conference
Albuquerque, New Mexico, September 19, 2003

Part 1 of 2 Parts

William L. White

I want to begin this morning by first offering greetings from the local recovery advocacy organizations that I speak to as I travel around the country each year. I offer greetings from that larger movement. I want you to know that they are very aware of the Wellbriety movement and have great respect for the work that's being done in Native communities. I'm also here to express their gratitude for what you're giving to non Indian communities, maybe even without your awareness.

A year ago during a presentation in Atlanta, I made passing reference to a new book called the Red Road to Wellbriety. When I was back there earlier this week, two African American women came up to specifically thank me for connecting them to the Wellbriety Movement and that book in particular. They told me that after I had been to Atlanta last year they had obtained copies of the Red Road book, and that that book had transformed their lives. They knew I was coming here to this conference so they asked me if I would extend their personal thank you for the gifts that you have given to their lives.

This is an important time. I want to talk a little bit about the pathway that led me here today and to the material that I'm going to be sharing with you. I entered recovery and the addictions field in 1969. For about 25 of those intervening years I've had one major obsession, separate from all the other projects I've been involved in. That obsession was reconstruction of the history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. The farther I got back in those studies I began to find some very surprising things. They were surprising things about the relationship of alcohol with Native America, and the rise of alcohol problems of Native America, and the historical solutions to those problems.

As I began to put some of that together I really didn't know what to do, although I began to include some of that material in my books and articles. Don and I met at a meeting for recovery advocates from around the country in the State of Minnesota. We began to talk about what he had discovered and what I was discovering in my historical research. We began to conclude that this was an incredibly important story that we needed to share. The story I want to share with you this morning is really about the untold story of resistance and resilience in recovery among Native American tribes. We have now been working on this project for well over two years, combining both very traditional, scholarly, academic historical research, with interviews Don has done with Native leaders as he has traveled and criss-crossed the country. We've begun to combine these two sources to assemble this story.

We are beginning to understand and rethink everything I was taught in a Master's degree in addictions studies about the relationship between alcohol and drug problems and Native peoples, and the solutions to those problems. We will talk about the rise of those problems. I'm going to talk a little bit about firewater myths that have emerged, fundamentally misconstruing both the sources and solutions to those problems. I hope I will excite and thrill some of you with some history. This new history will say that we now have evidence of Native recovery circles dating from the 1730's, more than 200 years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, and more than 100 years before the Washingtonian revival of the 1840's. I would like to summarize today some of the key conclusions that we've drawn from this work.

Evidence From the Historical Period
The first thing we want to mention is the relationship between Native people and psychoactive drugs prior to European Contact. The message is a very clear one. Native peoples had a remarkable understanding of botanical pharmacology, and in particular botanical psychopharmacology. They lived in harmony with a large number of psychoactive drugs, some of them of enormous power and potency, and did so respecting the spirit of those drugs and the rules within those drugs. We have not been able to find words in preContact Native languages to even conceptualize the concept of what today would be called abuse or addiction.

At the time of European Contact, the systems of medicine of European nations that came to colonize North America used ten plant-based medicines. At that same time, there were more than 170 plant based medicines used by Native tribes that will eventually be incorporated into Western medicine. That doesn't even include what we believe are probably hundreds of drugs and medicines that were lost in the cultural and physical assault of Native tribes. These known drugs included very potent forms of tobacco, they included large numbers of hallucinogens, drugs like datura, peyote and psilocybin, and morning glory and fly agaric.

We also note, contrary to popular conception, that there were Native tribes in what is now the southeastern and southwestern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and Alaska that had contact with alcohol prior to European contact. The second point that emerges out of this period is that we have a high degree of ritualization of psychoactive drug use prior to European Contact. What we didn't have was distilled alcohol, except possibly among the Aztec. What we didn't have was secular use of psychoactive drugs. These drugs were highly ritualized in ceremonies of medicine and religion. The idea of using these drugs outside the context of those rituals would have been virtually unthinkable. What is most important is that Native tribes ritualized the use of those drugs in ways to enhance benefits to the individual, the family, and the tribe.

I want to emphasize here that the primary tool of preContact prevention was the cultures themselves and the rituals within those cultures. Some of the mechanism they used, preContact, to manage those drugs was the evidence we have of those tribes either prohibiting, minimizing or controlling exposure of alcohol to women of childbearing years, and to children. This suggests that those tribes had some instinctive or actual technical knowledge of what will later be called fetal alcohol effects and fetal alcohol syndrome, more than 200 years before the scientists will confirm that disorder.

We have a tremendous insight into what we are now just beginning to realize about the clinical and social significance of lower age of onset of exposure. We found, for example, that tribes postpone exposure or access to psychoactive drugs until maturity, until after people had reached their productive years within tribes. We also discovered history of tribal leaders being banned from using psychoactive drugs and using alcohol even before Contact. The assumption was that their potential impairment would be a greater threat to the tribe as a whole.

We also have tribes that we found where quantities of alcohol were limited, both based on time of the year and ritualization of quantity. Native ciders and wines and beers were sometimes limited to one gourd per person. Perhaps more than anything else was the linking of the use of these drugs to ceremony and a powerful prohibition of the use of these drugs outside ceremony.

The third kind of conclusion, as we began to study the Contact period, was the discovery of some surprises. The stereotype we had is that European colonizers virtually rolled up to North America and rolled barrels of rum and whiskey off of the boats, devastating north America. What we find, however, is that simply is not the historical case. As we begin to go back and go through all the archival records, we don't find evidence of mass alcoholism in this early Contact. What we instead have are three different patterns.

Mirroring Euro-American Drinking Patterns
The first pattern was one of distrust and distaste, particularly for alcohol. Among the Lewis and Clark journals, for example, we find reports like the following: "They say we are no friends or we would not give them what makes them fools," one of the encountered tribes said. What we began to have was a high degree of initial resistance to exposure from alcohol. There is concern that if Europeans are proposing friendship and the ritual of consuming this substance as part of the friendship, why would they offer something that smells so foul and renders people so foolish?

A second pattern we find is evidence of Native Americans in initial Contact mirroring what today would be called "moderate controlled use of alcohol." They mirror the kind of drinking rituals that Europeans were exposing them to. But even more, we have a third pattern, the frontier drinking patterns of trappers, and traders, and soldiers. These people would themselves sometimes go long periods without access to alcohol, but in the rendezvous and trading would go through drunken episodes of violence and drinking. The evidence right now suggests that which came to be called "Indian drinking" is actually a frontier drinking, or what researchers sometimes call "bottlegang drinking." It was actually a learned behavior from the very whites who were introducing alcohol within their Native cultures.

In some areas we find a really long period of time before we have evidence of the rise of alcohol problems. The early warning signs of that are the secularization of alcohol, the shift from alcohol and other substances from a sacrament or a medicine to a beverage and an intoxicant. I want to give you an example of a comparison between preContact alcohol use and post contact alcohol use in the introduction of whiskey among the Southwestern Indians. Here's one of the quotes from an 1833 report from William Apess, reciting an earlier report. "There were white men here on our land as never before, so our men began to drink their whiskey. It was not a thing that you must drink only once a year like our cactus cider. You could drink it any time with no singing and no speeches, and it did not bring rain. Men grew crazy when they drank that whiskey and had visions." This is a beautiful depiction of the differences between the sacred and secular use of alcohol during this Contact period.

We've begun to ask the question, "When do we see Native alcohol problems rising?" And here is the best summary that Don and I can make right now. Alcohol problems began to rise in Native tribes when alcohol shifted from a medium of intercultural social contact, to a tool of economic, political and sexual exploitation of Native peoples. As those tribes came under physical and cultural assault, and became decimated by disease, we see almost the direct relationship between the rise of alcohol problems in tribes that did not have those problems prior to that. Part of this assault also included the kinds of exploitive trading practices that included such things as alcohol adulterated with strychnine, hydrochloric acid, and opium, which I think gives a whole other understanding to some of the characterizations, or what was associated with early Native alcohol problems.

These problems include exorbitant pricing. Whiskey that could be purchased for one dollar a gallon outside of Indian country is sold for thirty dollars a gallon inside Indian country. Perhaps most pernicious was the practice of selling whiskey at that rate on credit, virtually creating a kind of indentured servitude in many Native American tribes. We also have, despite growing attempts to control the liquor traffic in Indian country, a lack of enforcement of any of those bans.

Firewater Myths
As alcohol problems began to rise in Native America in the face of this physical and cultural assault, we have a number of what have come to be called "firewater myths" that began to emerge, generated by Europeans to characterize the nature of Native alcohol problems. These firewater myths, by portraying Indians as different from or inferior to Europeans, began to provide ideological support for the continued assault on Native tribes. This under girded the notion of Manifest Destiny—that these European cultures had a right to claim land from ocean to ocean. There are four firewater myths that we have tried to take on in this work in progress.

The first firewater myth is that American Indians have an inborn insatiable appetite for alcohol.

Number two is that American Indians are hypersensitive to alcohol, or as is sometimes said, "can't hold their liquor," and are inordinately vulnerable to addiction to alcohol. And this means biologically vulnerable to addiction to alcohol.

The third states that American Indians are dangerously violent when intoxicated.

Number four is that the solutions to alcohol problems within Native communities lie in interventions and resources from outside those communities.

Those four firewater myths have continued right up until the present and have not only shaped how others have viewed Native communities from outside, but have also shaped how Native communities have viewed their own relationships with alcohol. Those four myths are being consistently challenged by a body of new historical research and a body of new addictions science.

The first thing that we know in retrospect is that the firewater myths were framed specifically to buttress the domination of Native tribes by European cultures.

Secondly, we know that the nature and extent of alcohol problems has often been misrepresented in Native communities. This is the point where I could easily be misunderstood so I want to be exceptionally clear as I talk about this in the present tense.

There is no question that alcohol problems are a significant threat to the health of Native communities. There is massive data, including the lives of many of us in this room, to document that reality. But I want to argue with you that when Native communities are only presented in terms of alcohol problems and the story of the resistance to those problems, their resilience, meaning those who have not experienced problems in their relationship with alcohol, and the story of the large numbers of Native Americans who today are in long term stability, when that part of the story is not told, Native communities are victimized by lies of omission. If we are going to tell the story of these problems we must also tell the story of resistance, and the story of resilience, and the story of recovery.

Beyond the Firewater Myths
I want to now take on the question of Native vulnerability to alcohol. Some of the early control laws are couched in terms of this notion of biological or genetic vulnerability. Many of those views have evolved through the current and modern era. We tried to go back and sort out this very conflicted kind of evidence and look at the very best science that we have right now. The best science we have right now says, "Decades of research have failed to establish a purely Indian component of vulnerability to alcoholism." If you are looking for the historical source for Native alcohol problems, you should not be looking in a textbook on the genetics and biology of alcoholism. You should be looking in a book about history and a book about culture.

The sixth key point that I wanted to talk about has to do with legacies. When Don and I began to converse about the legacies of these firewater myths, our conclusion was that generations of stigma and racial shame related to the drunken Indian stereotype are the most harmful. Modern researchers say that this stereotype is not true today, and new historical evidence is suggesting that it was never true. The firewater myths continue to influence and under gird policies. It is time we began to systematically expose and bury those myths.

Truth number seven is that the barrels of whiskey and rum rolled off the boats and Native America passively acquiesced to this assault by distilled alcohol. The fact is that there were very strong resistance movements to the forced introduction of alcohol into Native cultures. We had Native leaders beginning to castigate alcohol and define alcohol as inherently unIndian. It was castigated as fool's water and referred to as the devil's spittle. We began to see some tribes incorporate alcohol into religious and medicinal rituals as a means of controlling its use and preventing damage. We also saw a very important role that we are just now beginning to explore. It's the role Native women long had in this period of early contact, to protect themselves, the children and the tribe when traders would come in and attempt to take an entire season's worth of furs with barrels of doctored whiskey and rum.

Political lobbying against the liquor traffic was very active among some of the most noteworthy of Native leaders. Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Little Turtle, and others were very politically active in terms of going to European leaders and demanding they stop or control the liquor traffic.

We also had the emergence of Native methods of treating alcoholism, using many of the traditional methods, including plant-based medicines. One of these include hot tea, which is the first evidence we have in history of somebody actually conceptualizing an anti-craving agent for alcoholism, which, as many of you know, is the current rage in biomedical research.

Long before anybody heard of the drug disulfone, or antabuse, there were Native tribes using a concoction from the roots of the Trumpet vine that created an aversive reaction to alcohol, not unlike antabuse. What saddens my heart is the other vague references to medicinal treatment of alcoholism—but we don't know what those were because those have been lost. It makes me wonder how many treatments for alcoholism may have been lost in the loss of traditional Native medicine rituals.

Native Revitalization Movements
One of the most significant responses among Native American tribes was the rise of culturally indigenous religious revitalization movements that are abstinence based. These movements constitute the first organized recovery mutual aid societies in the world. The very first mutual aid societies for recovery from alcoholism begin not in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, or the Washingtonians, or in the reform clubs of the 19th Century, but begin in Native America a full century before then. The germinating conditions for these societies include the loss of Native lands, military defeat, epidemic disease, poverty and hunger, and cultural demoralization. It was in these conditions that we begin to see a dramatic increase of alcohol problems and what today we would call alcoholism.

In that context, we had individuals who, within their traditions, began to isolate themselves, began to fast, began to go into the deserts and forests and mountains and plains, isolating themselves, having powerful visionary experiences, and sharing their visions with the people. Those visions became the soil out of which arose these new abstinence based recovery circles.

TO BE CONTINUED... in Wellbriety! V4, #24


 Printer Version (pdf) of Wellbriety! Summer: Volume4, Number23


Contact us:
White Bison, inc.
6145 Lehman Drive Suite 200
Colorado Springs, CO

E-mail us:
E-mail Us
Phone : 719-548-1000
Fax : 719-548-9407