Native American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact
Part 2 of Bill White's Talk
Noted authors Anne Wilson Schaef (L), and Margaret
J. Wheatley met for the first time at the Conference.
Both women contributed to the Conference with
workshop presentations and a keynote.
White (L) and Henry Lozano visit at the Conference
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 2 of 2
Parts Part 1 of the talk can be found
4, #23 of Wellbriety! Magazine
New abstinence-based recovery circles emerged out of
the visions of Native people who resisted the effects
of alcohol on their tribes in the historic era. I want
to highlight some of those for you, and give you a flavor
of how rich this early history is. There may be earlier
examples, but as far as Don and I have pushed this history
back, right now it is to the 1730's among the Delaware
Indians. The earliest recovery circles, and
they were referred to as circles, were organized by
a prophetess by the name of Wyoming Woman who began
to castigate alcohol and began to articulate alcohol
as a vehicle of destruction of Native cultures. She
called on the Delaware to abstain from all alcohol and
reject all other trappings of European culture.
is Part 2 of the talk William L. White gave at the
Fourth Annual Circles of Recovery Conference in
Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2003. This is not only
a talk about history way back there in
time. In this talk, Don Coyhis and Bill White invite
all those who would like to contribute to the book
being written to get in touch. White says, "Don
and I would like to invite you to be our co-authors
in this research. We know there are many missing
pieces of this history. We know that some of those
will be captured in oral tribal history. We are
going to try to find ways to get rough drafts of
this book we are working on out to you for your
review and comments. We want you to tell us what's
missing and to tell us the modern stories that also
need to be included."
get in touch with White Bison if you can bring
the story of the Indian sobriety movement from
the days after World II up to the present. Please
get in touch if you are willing to share anything
from your own experience or your tribal tradition
that relates to resistance to, and recovery from
alcohol in your own tribal ways. We want you to
be part of this book. We need your contribution
to make this book a living and true history of
White Bison by e mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call toll-free at 1-877-871-1495 to
That movement is followed very quickly
by other prophets by the names of Papoonan, Wangomen,
and perhaps most significantly, Neolin, in 1755. He
probably has the most fully organized sobriety based
support structure for people in recovery from alcoholism
in this early period.
As we move forward we get to the late
1700's and perhaps a kind of archetype of these movements
is that of the Handsome Lake movement. Handsome Lake
was born in 1735 among the Turtle Clan of the Seneca
Indians in what is now the State of New York. To be
honest, he lived an absolute degenerate and debauched
life. At the age of 65, in 1799, he is filled with bitterness
and resentment towards his family and his tribe. He
is in the midst of al long, extended binge on trade
whiskey, like a thousand others that he's been through,
and it seemed that at this point in time he had actually
died. His body became cold and he stopped breathing.
Hours later as the preparations were beginning for his
funeral, he suddenly awoke and announced that he had
died and gone to the Creator and that the Creator had
instructed him and sent him back with a message for
This is a person being sent back who has
no credibility within his tribe. This is a person sent
back who has no history of leadership. And yet, when
he awakes from this drunken binge, awakes from this
death-like experience, and when he awakes, the message
that he will give will take 125 pages to record when
it is finally recorded in 1913.
I would like to give you a very
brief piece of this. These are some of the first core
words from what is going to become the Code of Handsome
Lake that will be the first and probably one of the
most fully organized abstinence-based frameworks of
recovery—what will evolve into the Longhouse religion.
Here are the words from the Code of Handsome Lake.
He says, "The first
word is One'ga," which is really the term for whiskey
or rum. "This word stands for a great and monstrous
evil and has reared a high mound of bones. You lose
your minds, and Onega causes it all. Many are too fond
of it, so all must say, I will use it nevermore as long
as I live, as long as the number of my days is, I will
never use it again. I now stop." That was in 1799 and
Handsome Lake, to the best of all the records, will
never take another drink. He will go on to promote the
Code of Handsome Lake, organizing quarterly meetings,
and quarterly recovery circles, where people come together
for dancing, singing, and fasting. We also have some
hints of an early story style, a story style of sharing,
that is a little bit different from our contemporary
story style. This story style says, "This is the way
it was, This is what Happened, and This is the Way it
is." But this story style is not about an individual,
it's about the tribe.
The story style says
this is what our life was like in the tribe before One'ga
came to the tribe. This is what One'ga did and what
happened in the crisis that turned it around. And this
is what life is like in the tribe, now that we've sworn
to sobriety and a return to Native ways.
Another thing that was typical of the
Handsome Lake Movement that marked other movements,
was that this movement was more than something that
simply said stop drinking because it's destructive,
it's a pattern of self-genocide if we continue. It is
actually an extremely well-articulated moral code for
living. In addition to demanding abstinence, the Code
also attacked vainness, boasting, gossip, gambling,
sexual promiscuity, and violence towards women and children.
At the same time, the Code extolled the virtue of living
in community, caring for the elderly and the poor, and
the value of generosity. Many of the following movements
continued from that period to today.
Preachers, Prophets, and Movements
Next in history we have a period of the Indian Preachers,
Native Americans who converted to Christianity and then
virtually became evangelists, carrying a message, not
only of Christian conversion, but a message of alcoholism
recovery based on they themselves having recovered through
the vehicle of Christian conversion. They include Individuals
like Samson Occom and William Apess in the late 1700's
and the early 1830's. William Apess is perhaps significant
because his autobiography, published in 1827, called
The Son of the Forest, is the first Native
American biography we have published, but it's also
two things. It is the first Native American biography
of alcoholism we have. Apess was raised by alcoholic
grandparents. The vivid detail he portrays of his experience,
and the chaos, and violence of this alcoholic family,
probably marks the beginning of the Children of Alcoholism
literature in America, if not the world.
Occom and Apess are going to become missionaries
who travel from tribe to tribe, bringing this abstinence-based
message framed within a Christian framework. As the
American Temperance Movement rises, we will have temperance
missionaries, and we will have Native American temperance
societies. George Copway is an example. Copway spent
much of his later life traveling from tribe to tribe
organizing temperance societies. I have to admit that
when I first read the details of his life I had to say,
"That is what Don does these days!"
There was also the Cherokee Temperance
Society that became very well known for their ability
to sober up almost entire tribes for extended periods
of time. Then those tribes came under physical and cultural
assault and those societies collapsed.
There are additional prophet movements.
There is the Shawnee Prophet Movement that occurs between
1805 and 1811. This arose from a near-death experience
in which someone appeared to have died, and 24 hours
later awakes with the message. And the message is that
Native people must reject alcohol and all other European
trappings, returning to Native traditions. We have the
Kickapoo prophet of the 1830's who sobered up not only
a large number of the Kickapoo, but also a number of
the surrounding tribes. After this, as we move into
the late 1800's, we begin to get Nativist religious
movements, including the Indian Shaker Church. We get
the peyotism of the 1870's spreading from Mexico that
formalizes in the organization of the Native American
Church in 1918. We also see other movements and ceremonies
specifically organized by someone out of a crisis of
alcoholism that will play a role in initiating or strengthening
sobriety for many. These include the Ghost Dance Movement,
and traditions like the Sun Dance, Gourd Dance, and
the Sweat lodge.
These movements and traditions provided
a number of key things. They provided a Nativist rationale
for radical abstinence from alcohol. They framed the
context of abstinence not only in personal terms, but
it was really about survival of the people. They framed
the act of abstinence as a political as well as a personal
act. They built in the fact that sobriety was a representation
of Indianness. They built in rituals of grieving related
to personal and tribal losses. They built in value systems
like the Red Road, the Peyote Way, and the Code of Handsome
Lake. They also built in models for community action
and resistance against alcohol.
To summarize, alcohol recovery is a living
reality in Native communities and has been for more
than 250 years.
Now there is a larger recovery advocacy movement in
the United States, and we, as that larger movement are
saying that the ravages of alcoholism and addiction
are unbelievably visible in all of our communities.
Unfortunately, recovery becomes virtually invisible.
When people go back to jail for their umpteenth time,
that is incredibly visible. The person who, through
recovery and sobriety, drops out of that visibility
and becomes unseen within the society, is invisible.
One of the things that the recovery advocacy movement
is saying to all of us is this: It
is time that a vanguard of recovering people and their
families stood up in this culture and announced our
The movement is saying that everyone in
this society knows somebody in recovery. The problem
is, they don't know they are in recovery. For example,
attitudes towards cancer and the kind of stigma attached
to conditions like cancer did not change in this culture
until we reached critical mass where everybody knew
somebody in recovery from cancer. They knew somebody
who survived cancer and had done so for five years.
We are arguing out of this new recovery advocacy movement
that the same is true for alcoholism. We need to begin
to offer ourselves as living proof to this culture that
there are permanent solutions to alcoholism and drug
addiction. We need to do that, in particular, in Native
communities where the story of resistance and the story
of resilience and recovery has been suppressed for so
I think it is also time to give credit
to Native communities where that credit is due. The
very birth of the idea of the Wounded Healer, the notion
that somebody has survived an experience or condition
and who may offer something special in the healing of
others experiencing that condition, comes from within
Native culture. It's time we began to credit Native
America for their role in the history of sobriety-based
This is not an aged, musty history. The
history of recovery, the history of resilience, the
history of the resistance I am describing is very much
alive today. It is alive in the continuity of those
earlier movements. It is alive in the Native American
Church today, in the Indian Shaker Church, and in the
Longhouse religions. It is vibrantly alive in the current
Wellbriety Movement. It is evident with the rise of
AA within Native communities following the Second World
War, and the growing Indianization AA, NA and Alanon
in those communities.
There are new recovery-based cultural
and religious revitalization movements popping up around
the country, with the Wellbriety Movement being the
connecting tissue for those movements. The most effective
and enduring solutions to Native alcohol problems have
for more than 300 years come from within those communities.
Efforts to solve these problems from outside Native
communities have inadvertently contributed to the very
hopelessness out of which alcohol problems in those
communities thrive. Historically, the solutions emerge
out of the very heart of Native culture. The community
IS the treatment center. We will help heal those cultures
so there is no space for alcohol and drug problems,
nor interpersonal violence within those cultures. The
history of resistance and recovery within Native American
tribes is a testimony of cultural forces of prevention
and healing that continue to constitute powerful but
underutilized forces in the resolution of alcohol and
other drug problems.
Invitation to Healing and History
Don and I would like to invite you to be our co-authors
in this research. We know there are many missing pieces
of this history. We know that some of those will be
captured in oral tribal history. We are going to try
to find ways to get rough drafts of this book we are
working on out to you for your review and comments.
We want you to tell us what's missing and to tell us
the modern stories that also need to be included. It's
not enough to talk about the Native American Church
of 1918—we need to talk about a recovery story
in 2003 of someone in the Native American Church.
One of the most significant movements
that shaped my own life was the American Civil Rights
Movement. The story that I heard in 1965, which had
occurred a couple of years earlier, went like this.
It takes place during one of the first early civil rights
marches as they prepared to march against a federal
restraining order. It takes place as they faced the
march and the violation of that order. They went into
the streets and began to march. Then, as they turned
a corner and faced a bridge and a sea of police dogs
and baton-slapping police officers, the entire march
froze. They froze almost in silence as every person
began to visualize what could unfold within the coming
seconds and minutes.
At that point one of the oldest men in
the group, very quietly and with dignity simply said,
"Let's go make some history." The group unfroze and
marched forward into history.
We are attempting to assemble much of
the lost history of resistance and recovery. But the
future chapters of this book Don and I are working on
are really left to be written with your lives. As we
leave here I would charge you with the mission, Let's
go make some history.
As I leave today I leave you my heart.
I leave you the very warmest regards and respect from
the larger recovery advocacy movement around this country.
And I leave you the challenge to go forward and write
this future with your lives.