Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 21 Number 1
October 1981


Wayne Mitchell and Kenneth Patch

When the white man came, the Indians had the land and the white man had the liquor. Now, the white man has the land and the Indians have the liquor.

ALCOHOL abuse and alcoholism are major concerns of the American Indian. According to a 1978 report from the Arizona Department of Health Services (see Note 1). American Indians had the highest rate proportionally of all the ethnic groups of problems related to alcoholism. The various problems faced by American Indians as individuals and as members of extended communities present great concern for all American Natives. The problem of alcoholism is as complicated as it is diverse.

The problems faced by American Indians can be grouped into two categories: individual and societal. Included in either or both of these categories are the more specific problems relative to health, education, economics, marriage and family, employment and self-determination of the individual and of the various tribes. It has often been stated that alcoholism is the most prevalent health problem of the American Indian. Alcoholism enters insidiously into the daily lives of virtually every tribe.

Some of the major health problems which have been attributed to alcoholism include cirrhosis of the liver, kidney dysfunctions, heart disease, fetal alcohol syndrome, and other disorders of the body organs, central nervous system and genetic code. Additionally, a wide range of medical problems stem from alcohol abuse which results in auto accidents, suicide, homicide, physical abuse of family members and self-inflicted injuries. Because these problems exist, a major portion of time, effort, medical resources and finances of the health care delivery system is tied up in treatment of alcohol related medical problems. The ramifications of alcoholism are endless.

The problems relative to alcohol abuse go beyond the medical problems already noted. A major result of alcohol abuse is the individualís loss of self control. Some of the problems this leads to include inability to control oneís drinking, abusive treatment of family and decrease in the ability to acquire and/or retain a job. As the user of alcohol becomes an abuser of alcohol, perceptions of reality begin to change for the individual. Misinterpretations of reality may keep the drinker from realizing the extent and degree of dependence upon alcohol. As these misinterpretations increase, the individualís perception of self may change along with the inability to control the consumption of alcohol and the responses produced by it. The combination of misperceptions of reality and the inability to control alcohol consumption may result in the other personal problems previously mentioned. A major impact of the loss is the accompanying feeling of hopelessness and despair.

The problems of individuals collectively create broader problems for society in general and American Indian communities specifically. Responses to these societal problems have been the development of costly social service programs of welfare, alcoholism counseling, rehabilitation and family services. Other community responses include expansion of law enforcement and judicial programs.

Education Is Needed

In order to meet the challenges of the problems of alcohol abuse, a comprehensive alcohol educational program is needed. These programs would need to encompass a wide variety of preventative educational approaches. These programs would be directed at Indian youth in the elementary and high schools and for the Indian community in general. Specialized classes could be offered at various levels of school. A more successful process could be developed whereby alcohol education would be integrated into the schoolís curriculum. The emphasis of in-school educational programs should focus on several specific areas.

Alcohol information classes offered by themselves or as a part of content areas would deal with the effects of alcohol. Students would learn about the biological, psychological and sociological affects of alcohol. Learning activities would include the use of study and audiovisual materials, presentations by health specialists, recovering alcoholics, and visitations to field agencies including halfway houses and recovery centers.

One such form of education now published by the School of Social Work at Arizona State University is a notation calendar for Indian mothers-to-be which describes week-by-week fetal growth and the problems of fetal alcohol syndrome. The calendars are distributed via workshops for social workers in medical clinics.

Another area of emphasis would be in the development of self-management skills. Behavior modeling is an important contribution to the use or abuse of alcohol by young Indian people. The program would be designed to assist the young people in the identification and recognition of various modeling behaviors. Through this process, individuals could learn to adapt and develop those behaviors which would be consistent with their own goals and concepts of the kind of people that they wish to become. Self-management techniques such is decision making, problem solving and alternatives identification and selection would be taught. Other self-management skills which would be developed through this program would include values clarification, goal setting, time management and interpersonal communications.

Educational programs within the communities should support preventative education efforts within the school settings. The community educational programs should be designed to provide both preventative and rehabilitative services. The emphasis of the preventative program could parallel that which is

provided within the educational system, but would be aimed at the general population. The alcohol information component should be designed to address the broad concerns of the community. These concerns include the effects of alcohol on individuals of all ages and of the community as a group. Special attention would be given to the concept of behavior modeling and models.

The development of self-management skills is as crucial for the healthy existence of communities as for individuals. Just as self-management is essential for the retention of self-control, so also is self-management essential for community self determination. In order for these educational programs to be effective in the schools and communities, it is necessary that the tribal and community leadership both understand and support these programs. It may be necessary to educate both the formal and informal leadership in order to remove the "politics" and other detriments to successful program operations.

In summary alcohol abuse and alcoholism contribute to many problems for American Indians. These problems affect individuals, their families, and their communities as a whole. In order to meet the challenges of these problems, educational programs should be presented in the formal school setting for Indian youth and in the communities for the general population. The primary outcome of these programs would be the development of self-management skills. These skills are seen as being essential for maintenance of individuals self control and for community self determination.


1. Arizona Department of Health Services, Bureau of Vital Record and Information Services, Health Information, Special Report No. 4, 1979.

Wayne Lee Mitchell (Santee Sioux and Mandan) holds a Ed. D. degree in Curriculum Development from Arizona State University, where he is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and is on the faculty of the Center for Asian Studies. Kenneth Patch holds a Ph. D. in Higher and Adult Education from Arizona State University. He is an Instructor at the University of Phoenix.

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