October 25, 2006

Ira Hayes, Indians, and Alcohol

One of the three major characters in Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" about the Iwo Jim flag raisers is Ira Hayes (played by Adam Beach, an Ojibwa from Manitoba), the Pima Indian whose sad postwar life has often been told before, with Tony Curtis playing him in "The Outsider" and Johnny Cash writing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes:"

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes
But his land is just as dry
And his ghost is lyin' thirsty
In the ditch where Ira died

Some reviewers have fretted that retelling his tale will just revive the "stereotype" of the alcoholic Indian. Of course, like most stereotypes, it is more or less true: alcoholism is a severe problem for American Indians. A better approach than denouncing anyone who mentions this problem is trying to figure out a solution for it. To do that, though, we'd first have to find its cause. I've poked around a lot on the Internet looking for research on the subject, but there is frustratingly little.

I tend to favor the evolutionary explanation -- the more your ancestors have had time to remove themselves from the gene pool by succumbing to alcoholism, the safer you are from it -- because it explains a lot of evidence, such as why Jews and Italians, whose ancestors drank wine for many thousands of years, have so little trouble with alcoholism; why normally level-headed Scandinavians are prone to binge-drinking disasters; and why indigenous peoples all over the world are hit hard by alcoholism. On the other hand, for once, I don't think the cultural explanation -- that aboriginal alcoholism stems from the psychic dislocation and male economic obsolescence caused by their collision with modernity -- can be dismissed out of hand.

On the Blue Corn Comics website, two American Indians readers offer casual but insightful versions of the two sides of the debate:

Gee, now they are going to study what we have known for sometime. I'm going to interject some of what I got told (by Yale and Harvard researchers, our own folks, etc.) and have passed on to my kids?see if it fits with what you all have known, been told, read, learned???

And, my comments are OVER-simplified, short, for the sake of time (mine and yours) and space (ditto).

We didn't use alcohol in any form for 40 thousand years, consequently had no enzyme to break it down. Once in the mouth (for some, even on the skin -- like in shaving smell goods?) it passes thru the soft tissue immediately, and, as it progresses thru the digestive tract/system, it passes, undiluted, into, thru every organ/part in the body.

If, in the crossing of the gene pool, racial crossover relationships, you don't GET that enzyme -- then bingo -- you are an alcoholic at conception, so all labels need to be read and heeded. So, yes, it's passed on -- as is diabetes. You get a pancreas that can produce enough insulin, you don't get diabetes; you get an Indian system, diabetes looms on the horizon.

The red flush is well known in the native population. I can walk into any bar/restaurant late, and point with fair certainty to those who, when asked, you have Indian ancestors? ("Yes.") They are beet red, admit to feeling warm all over when they drink -- like a hot flash. I was told, "Why do you think they called it 'fire water'?" Made sense to me.

Because with many of us this is an allergy, and we may not have the proper breakdown system, it's also why (I was told) Indians are often binge drinkers -- none for a few weeks, months, then, one is too many, 300 is not enough. And often why 12-step programs, etc., don't work -- there's nothing wrong with our morals, ethics, or backbones.

Considering how stressed our communities are, our families, and if this is true, that [alcohol] triggers a rise in the already faulty system we are born with, no wonder the alcoholism and suicide rate is so high. Anyway, too bad all these scientists just don't come around and chat with us, hear our stories, could get a lot of info for a McDonald's lunch, probably!! I'd talk their ears off for some substantial carry-out Chinese. ~{}:-)


Hi Rob,

Two things I wanted to bring up: One of the links in that article is about alcoholism among Natives. It brings up the claim among some scientists that we are alleged to be genetically predisposed to alcoholism.

I'm always pretty uncomfortable with these types of claims that biology=destiny. First of all, it's not true that we were never exposed to alcohol before Columbus. My own people, the Apache, have long brewed alcohol from corn. It's called tiswin. Not being able to brew it was one of the reasons Goyathlay (Geronimo) left confinement on the rez and went to war. Some still drink it today, and I've never heard of anyone abusing it.

The Aztecs and many other Indians in Mesoamerica also drank alcohol made from cactus called pulque. Not only that, drinking was done ritually in Nahua and other Mexican Indian villages, and still is to this day. A good source for reading about the change in drinking that Europeans brought in Wm Taylor's Drinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexico.

There's another book called Lies, Misconceptions, and Cherished Myths in American History that also talked about this subject for part of a chapter. The first Europeans to come here often wrote in their journals about how Natives drank in *moderation* while they (the Europeans) drank until they passed out.

So I don't think we can give much credence to these images of "give an Injun a bottle and he's helpless."

Plus some Native groups have long had used other mind altering substances like peyote, jimsonweed, and ayahuasca. There were and are strict standards for when and how they could be used, and they weren't for recrational use. They just stuck to using them in a ritual fashion though, or in certain proscribed social outlets, like the village wide drinking bouts allowed a few times a year in Mexican Indian villages.

I really think the difference in Native drinking habits from the general population is based on *how much we are allowed to make our own choices* in lifestyle, religion, and so on. So many times when I hear about how bad drinking is on a rez, it seems to me to be related to that. A friend of mine and colleague here at ASU, Patty Harms, grew up on a reserve in Manitoba. She tells me she never saw drinking there growing up. It was a fairly self sufficient community, still living mostly by hunting and harvesting wild rice. Now that commercial enterprises have made it impossible for that to continue, they have to live on government aid and have just an incredibly bad epidemic of alcoholism.

Put *any* people, Native, white, black, in that same situation and you'll have similar results, no matter what the geneticists uncover.

Just my thoughts, and hope you'll think about working this in somewhere on your site.

Al Carroll

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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