Circles of Recovery Conference
Albuquerque, New Mexico, September, 2003
American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact
Addictions Researcher Bill White Speaks at the
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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,