September 29, 2011

Melvin Martin on alcoholism

Correspondent Melvin Martin writes about the scourge of alcoholism among Indians:I have always been very proud to be an American Indian, as well I should. But there have been times in my nearly six "winters," when I have felt thoroughly, absolutely ashamed to be Indian. And what happened last week was but the latest example. There was a shirtless Indian man of perhaps 30-years old at my favorite supermarket in the Twin Cities area who sat on the sidewalk in front of this store with a crudely made cardboard stand that offered an assortment of Indian jewelry, worn-out beaded knick knacks and rough-looking leatherwork for sale. Throngs of non-Indians simply ignored the man, who sat in glum silence until he saw me with my long, black hair and the small medicine pouch necklace that I wear on occasion. Upon seeing that I was Indian, the man quite loudly and rudely demanded that I come over to him.

As I approached the main entrance close to where the man was seated, I detected the unmistakable odor of alcohol emanating from the man--and this was from a distance of about ten feet away. I also noticed that the man was badly beaten, his nose was flattened like a pancake, his right eye was blackened in an ugly pattern that extended down to his lips, and one lens of his eyeglasses were completely cracked. As I, too, ignored the man, he suddenly became louder: "I'll be honest with you, bro. I just want a jug of wine. Can somebody help me out with a jug of wine!"

For an instant, I almost reached into my pants pocket for what little spare change I did have, when a morbidly obese white guy screamed out in an ear-shattering, high-pitched voice, "Will somebody get him a jug a wine! Please! Please! Please!" And then the fat man laughed uncontrollably. I stopped dead in my tracks and noticed that there was a crowd of maybe 20 people, all white, who were staring and glaring at the drunk. Time seemed to halt during those awful seconds and all I could see on every white face gathered there was a single emotional response--of total revulsion.

At that moment I thought of all of the terrible things I've seen all my life that involved Indians and alcohol. From growing up in an alcoholic household, to my service in the military in Germany, to my college days in the '70s and then my vagabond period as a working drifter, the ubiquitously described "scourge" of Indian alcoholism has stalked my life like a famished bloodhound. My mind reeled with the horrific imagery of the worst instances of Indian people around me drinking heavily and drunk--all of the violence, the mayhem, the sadness, and the sorrow--of not only family, friends and associates over the years, but of me and my own drinking, too. Here we are now, at the beginning of the 21st century and the destructive nature of alcohol is still very much present in Indian life.

To add even more disheartening weight to my troubled take on the matter of Indian drinking, word came forth just today about how on a certain "rez" a tribal representative was heavily, publicly intoxicated a few days ago and that yet another tribal leader threw a rather sizeable drinking get-together this past weekend. Then a friend laments and understandably so, that people on her reservation do not know how to drink socially. And I fully agree with this assessment as to how, aside from those Indians who can drink in a societally appropriate manner, a disturbing number of Indians consume alcoholic beverages.

It is not widely known that Indians in the American West were "shown" how to drink by the worst alcoholics of the day: mountain men, miners, soldiers, cowboys, gun fighters, criminals, mercenaries, whores, and ruffians of every type. These people drank solely to get drunk and very drunk. The "whiskey" that they drank was most often a Devil's brew of rubbing alcohol, kerosene, terpentine, witch hazel (et al.), and was chemically darkened to look like whiskey with whatever was on hand, including old boots, shoes, saddles, stale tobacco, putrified black strap molasses, boiled bugs or over-cooked sugar. Large amounts of dried red chili peppers and a Pandora's Box of other sickening things, like snake heads and assorted animal parts were tossed into the mix to give the liquor an enhanced flavor or "character." And much of the whiskey traded to Indians often contained human or horse urine. These drinking partners and their concoctions set the course for the now all-too-familiar, problematic system of Indian drinking practices, habits and "traditions," which is to basically drink anything, anything at all, and hard and heavy.

And these days who should stand up and take the lead towards effectively addressing the horrors that alcoholism visits upon the tribal nations? First and foremost, from my perspective, should be the elected tribal leadership and the young men especially, today's versions of the warriors of old. But when I hear stories about how the very leadership of tribes drink alcoholically and the people see them in this condition, I know firsthand that these accounts are indeed true. In the '70s I once met with a tribal leader who kept a big bottle of bourbon in his office on his desk in plain sight. He even offered me a drink that I politely refused as it was only 9:00 a.m., and in those days I didn't have my first drink until noon. We often look to our leaders as examples as to how we should live our lives as Indian people as we seem to suffer from a collective dearth of men and women in the historical as well as contemporary sense to admire for that purpose. When they show up drunk at public functions or are even observed intoxicated off-duty, what message is to be derived from such behavior?

And what of our young men? In the days of the interaction with mountain men, who were essentially fur traders, the young males invariably exercised authority over the fur items obtained through their own efforts as providers and their need for liquor resulted in horrible outcomes when the alcohol was rapidly consumed. This is one of the main processes by which poverty among tribes became a tragic commonality, and hence crippled the people's endeavors to combat the myriad of dangers to the integrity of a tribe's basic health and safety as well as their very existence in the economic, cultural, and religious domains. I hereby call upon the young men (and women) of our people to confront the menace that alcohol presents to us and to the next generations. And there is no greater time to do this than now.

Melvin Martin is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. He is currently working on a novel that focuses on family dysfunction. And he can be reached at
Comment:  For more on Indians and alcohol, see "Res-Love" = Abuse and Alcoholism and Review of The Elder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And there's also a difference between Indian and white handling of alcohol. I can feel it in my gut. No, seriously, the amount of certain substances that oxidize alcohol. We have less of the enzymes required to turn alcohols into aldehydes.

Asians have the opposite problem, with less of the enzymes required to turn aldehydes into fatty acids.

The actual process is a lot like making vinegar, where C2H6O becomes C2H4O, which in turn becomes C2H4O2.