One of the ugliest stereotypes in America is the image of the "drunken Indian."
Still, despite the unfair characterization, alcohol often plays a destructive role in the lives of far too many Native Americans. Some studies say the isolated reservations is one reason. Some wonder if there's a genetic link at work. Whatever the personal and social dynamics of the issue, however, the figures give cause for concern.
According to a report released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11.7 percent of the deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives between 2001 and 2005 were alcohol-related. That's compared to just 3.3 percent for the nation as a whole. Most of those who die from alcohol issues are men younger than 50. That group is a vital segment of the American Indian population.
Many professionals view the figures as a call to action not just for federal, state and local government action, but for action by the various tribal governments.
The big reasons for the high rate appear to be traffic fatalities and liver disease. Homicide, suicide and injury deaths are also listed. Alcohol also may be a contributor to deaths by tuberculosis, colon cancer and pneumonia.
Several things need to be done.
The poverty level on reservations drives people to despair. Tribal governments and others need to find better ways to court businesses and industry to invest in the American Indian.
The remote and lonely life of the reservation is also a factor. Bringing better communication links and information sources to the reservation would enhance the sense of community and belonging.
But most of all, tribes need to work to improve education about alcohol and alcoholism. The study claims what is needed are more "culturally appropriate clinical interventions." On some reservations being intoxicated is greeted with an attitude of "understanding" rather than as a cry for help. Seeing abuse of alcohol as a disease, not a weakness or a form of "self-medication," will help professionals offer assistance where it's needed.
Tribes are already sponsoring more and more alcohol-free events. We urge them to push such initiatives even further.
The drunken Indian may be an ugly stereotype. But the issue of alcohol is not a figment of the imagination. Ignoring it will lead only to more devastation.