The cycle of native alcoholism must be exposed

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CRAZYWATER; The cycle of native alcoholism must be exposed if it is to be broken

As you make your way, you notice an obstruction in the flow of people ahead of you. Like a rock in the middle of a river, the obstruction forces the currents of foot traffic to sweep around it.

The obstruction is a man. He's standing in the middle of the sidewalk and he's the only one on the block who's not moving.

In one quick glance, you absorb the distinguishing features of an all-too-familiar character. His brown-skinned face is dirty and unshaven. His shaggy black hair is matted and greasy. His clothes are ragged and filthy. One of his eyes is half-open, the other is a swollen, purple bruise. He has no front teeth and his drooling mouth is a gaping, twisted hole.

He sways, then lurches and takes two quick steps forward. He jerks his upper body backward to keep from falling on his face.

His deep voice has a jagged edge and a distinctive accent. As you draw closer he blurts, "Hey! Kin you gimme a quarter?

By now you've recognized the distinguishing features of this pitiful creature of the urban landscape and made your identification -- he's a drunk, a native drunk. He's another drunken Indian.

Incidents like this play themselves out on Canadian sidewalks thousands of times every day and millions of times every year.

There's nothing remarkable about these fleeting encounters except for one thing: they are one of the few contacts that Canadians have with native people.

Native people, after all, make up less than four per cent of Canada's population, and many live a world apart from most Canadians -- on Indian reserves, in Metis communities and Inuit villages. Many others live a marginalized existence in poor urban neighborhoods or are homeless on skid row. Only a tiny fraction of native people have melded into the Canadian mainstream.

Most of them, therefore, are invisible to the majority of Canadians.

True, most Canadians "see native people almost every day. They sit in the same restaurants, ride the same buses and shop in the same stores. On another level, Canadians also "see native people almost every day in the media. Native people and native issues are seemingly everywhere.

But the perceptions of native people that most Canadians have are defined by the second-hand images they see in the media and by the first-hand encounters they have on the street. Given these limited and superficial sources of information, it's not surprising that the stereotype of "the drunken Indian looms so large in the warped perception that many Canadians have of native people. Although this stereotype is not fully shared by all Canadians, it is nevertheless deeply rooted in the Canadian psyche. In fact, it is as firmly rooted in Canadian belief as is the fairy tale that Europeans settled this land peacefully and without bloodshed.

Not all Canadians propagate the stereotype, but there's no denying the tremendous impact it has had. There isn't a single native person alive today who has not heard the slur.

Ultimately, public attitudes about "drunken Indians affect government policies about all Indians and all native people.

It's tempting to ignore the horrendous aspects of native alcoholism. It's tempting to concentrate solely on people who've quit drinking and on people who've never drunk in their lives. It's tempting, but it's not very helpful.

There is one basic reason for focusing attention on this segment of the native population: If people don't understand the native drunk on skid row, they don't understand the full story of native alcoholism. And if they don't understand native alcoholism, they don't understand native people.

On a general level, what should be understood about native alcoholism is that the stereotype of the drunken Indian is much more than a dominating and unsightly phenomenon -- it is a symbol of the holocaust that has wreaked destruction on the Onkwehonwe of Great Turtle Island for the past 300 years, and the results have been horrifying. On an individual level we are paying the legal, medical, financial and social consequences in the form of beatings, accidents, injuries, suicides, murders, arrests, jail terms, fires, drownings, sexual abuse, child abuse, child neglect, poor health, child apprehensions, unemployment and welfare dependency.

But our people have paid an even higher price. We have lost our languages, medicines and religions. We have lost our pride, dignity and confidence. We have lost our family values, social patterns and political structures. We have lost our stewardship over the land. We have lost control of our lives and our destiny. We have lost almost everything a race of people can lose.

I shudder to think that in my lifetime, by my calculations, 100,000 of my brothers and sisters from all parts of Great Turtle Island have gone to an early grave with alcohol in their blood. But they aren't the only ones to go to an early grave. Many other sober, innocent people have also died because of native alcoholism. Great Turtle Island moans with the restless spirits of the victims of a holocaust that has spared no one.

Surveys taken in the Yukon and Saskatchewan show that fully one-third of the adult Indian population has a drinking problem. In Saskatchewan, 38 per cent of more than 900 adults surveyed said they were either a problem drinker, a chronic drinker or a binge drinker. In the Yukon, 33 per cent of the adult Indians surveyed said they were "heavy drinkers, people who drank more than five drinks on each drinking occasion.

But alcohol abuse affects everyone in the native community. The two-thirds of the community that do not have a drinking problem -- the social drinkers, the non-drinkers and the children -- feel the effects, in many different ways, when a friend or family member loses their job, home, family, life or self-respect to alcohol.

If the effects of today's alcoholism are not bad enough by themselves, there is also the reality that every native person alive today is paying the price for the alcoholism of past generations. For example, many of us, maybe even most of us, are survivors of sexual abuse by alcoholic adults. Many of us are dysfunctional adults who are survivors of dysfunctional alcoholic families. And many, especially those of us raised in white foster homes, have lost our identity -- we have no idea who we really are; have no idea who we should be; and have no way of becoming the person we should and could have become.

The story of native people and alcohol is appalling. But one of the ironies is that except for a few highly visible people on skid row, native alcoholism is almost invisible. That's because this horrendous problem is felt most deeply in areas that are rarely seen by most Canadians -- on Indian reserves, in Inuit villages and Metis communities and on skid row.

One reason why alcoholism is almost invisible is that governments and the media are focusing a lot of attention these days on AIDS -- in spite of the fact that alcoholism is, has been, and is likely to be, far more deadly.

The federal government, through Health and Welfare Canada, recognized native alcoholism 10 years ago when it established the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program. In this fiscal year, the department is spending $53 million on the treatment and prevention of native alcoholism and substance abuse. This does not include the government monies spent dealing with the legal, social, economic and medical consequences of native alcoholism.

When I think about the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program, I can't help thinking that we, as native people, have the dubious distinction of being the only race of people in the country to have a government program geared to combat our alcoholism.

There are no special programs to deal with other ethnic groups in spite of their legendary fondness for beer, wine, vodka, scotch or whisky. The very existence of the program is a slap in the face. It diminishes our self-esteem by contributing to the misperception that "all native people are drunks.

For its part, the news media pay scant attention to native alcoholism. They occasionally report on it but usually only when the story involves gory or sensational incidents.

The mundane aspects of this tragedy are ignored by the mainstream media but native leaders and the native media are just as guilty. For example, native media outlets occasionally report the testimonials of native people who have quit drinking. On these few occasions these people are presented as role models and as positive examples of native sobriety. However, most native media outlets (with few exceptions) deliberately refrain from doing stories about "the problem. As more than one native media executive have told me over the years, "the mainstream news media carry enough bad news about native people. We don't have to do it too."

The native news media seem to want to downplay or ignore a crisis that directly affects one-third (and indirectly affects the other two-thirds) of the native population. If a third of any other segment of the Canadian population suffered from any other similarly disastrous malady, the outcry and the demand for action would be loud and prolonged -- I hope. I'm afraid, though, that we -- Canada and its native peoples -- have accepted native alcoholism and learned to live with it.

As bad as the native media's record is, the record of native political leaders is worse. They have a poor record themselves. More importantly, though, they bear the responsibility and they have the opportunity to do something about it.

When it comes to speaking about alcoholism or sobriety, most native leaders are silent, excruciatingly so. Their actions, on the other hand, speak all too loudly.

Many native leaders make obnoxious drunken asses of themselves in public. From time to time some of them pass out in bars, get into drunken brawls, beat their spouses, get caught drunk driving or get arrested for public drunkenness. It's no wonder native leaders are so reluctant to condemn alcoholism or promote sobriety. They are in the grip of the problem themselves. The fact is that many native leaders at the local, regional and national levels -- many, not most, not all, but far too many native leaders -- have been drunks. These are the very people who are expected to provide leadership, to fight for the people they represent. But it saddens and angers me to realize that more native leaders have probably gone to jail because of drunkenness than because they challenged the law and fought for the rights of their people.

The one positive element in all this is that things used to be worse. Native leaders are now a much more sober lot than they were a generation ago, but sober, non-drinking leaders are still in the minority. Because there are more sober native role models around these days, a generation of young native people may finally grow up to believe that being sober is fashionable and being drunk is foolish, instead of the other way round.

It may seem that I am going out of my way to beat up on native leaders or the native media. I'm not. "White people and Canadian society bear a huge measure of responsibility for native alcoholism. Although much of this responsibility stems from the past, some of it still rests with the government's continuing refusal to make the necessary changes to allow native people to control their lives and their future.

With few exceptions, individual Canadians are not personally responsible for native alcoholism. One of the exceptions is Gilbert Jordan, a Vancouver barber. Jordan, a white man, was convicted of manslaughter in 1988 and sentenced to prison for poisoning an Indian woman with alcohol. A police investigation found that Jordan bribed and forced the woman to guzzle a large amount of liquor quickly. But she wasn't Jordan's only victim. In the previous eight years, six other native women died of alcohol poisoning after spending a night drinking with him.

To my mind, though, Jordan was just doing on a small scale what Old Man Canada has been doing on a massive scale to native people for centuries. Old Man Canada stripped us of our land, languages, culture, dignity, traditional economies, governments and social structures. Old Man Canada robbed us, raped us and left us with no pride in the past and no hope for the future. Old Man Canada coldly and deliberately poisoned us with his policies and legislation just as surely as if he had held us to the ground with his knee on our chest and used a funnel to pour the booze down our throat.

Are we as native people, then, completely and solely to blame for our alcoholism? No. But it's time we stopped blaming others and started accepting responsibility for changing the situation we're in. The problem of native alcoholism won't be solved until we face up to the problem -- as individuals and as a people.