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Maia Szalavitz: Stereotypes about Native Americans and alcohol

Filed Under: Health
More on: alcohol, maia szalavitz, race, stereotypes
     
 

The economy in Whiteclay, Nebraska, a town just across the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation, is based on selling alcohol to members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Photo from Ammodramus / Wikipedia

Writing for The Verge, neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz dispels myths and stereotypes about Native Americans and alcoholism:
Addiction is often described as an equal opportunity disease. It isn’t: while anyone can become addicted under certain conditions, like most bullies, addiction prefers to hit people who are already hurting. The more trauma and social exclusion a child experiences, the greater the addiction risk. This creates a vicious cycle: addiction itself becomes a reason for even more rejection, prejudice, and maltreatment.

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the shameful collection of stereotypes and stigmas surrounding alcoholism among American Indians. "Firewater" myths come from the racist ideology that fueled colonialism; they can be seen, for example, in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a chief who led a native movement for abstinence. Jefferson argues that whites have only "sold what individuals wish to buy" and that "spirituous liquors are not in themselves bad … But as you find that your people cannot refrain from an ill use of them, I greatly applaud your resolution not to use them at all."

The apogee of victim-blaming, the idea that genetic "inferiority" causes native peoples to be particularly susceptible to addiction was not falsifiable when it was initially spread. But even now that it has been disproven, the myth obscures the real causes of addiction and the starring roles that trauma and the multiple stresses of inequality can play in creating it.

In fact, there’s no evidence that Native Americans are more biologically susceptible to substance use disorders than any other group, says Joseph Gone, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. American Indians don’t metabolize or react to alcohol differently than whites do, and they don’t have higher prevalence of any known risk genes.

Get the Story:
Maia Szalavitz: No, Native Americans aren't genetically more susceptible to alcoholism (The Verge 10/2)


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