ERIC Identifier: ED335207
Publication Date: 1991-07-00
Author: Gale, Nancy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Fighting Alcohol and Substance Abuse among American
Indian and Alaskan Native Youth. ERIC Digest.
Data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (National Institute,
1989) show that about 50 percent of all U.S. adolescents have used alcohol.
The comparable figure for American Indian and Alaskan Native youth ("Native
youth" hereafter) is approximately 80 percent (Beauvais, Oetting, &
Wolf, 1989). Early experimentation with alcohol and drugs places Native
youth, in particular, at risk for serious problems. What creates this situation,
and, more to the point, what is happening to correct it?
Living up to worthy expectations can be difficult for anyone, especially
in the contemporary world, where most youth are challenged to experiment
with alcohol and drugs. Many Native youth, however, face additional hazards
that increase their risk for alcohol and substance abuse (Native American
Development Corporation, 1990a): cultural conflict, post-traumatic stress,
and low self-esteem.
When traditional Native values clash with the values of the dominant
society, cultural conflict results (Four Worlds Development Project, 1984a).
Native youth can easily be caught in a no-man's land of confusion and fuzzy
self-image. Besides coping with the normal challenges of adolescence, Native
youth must also deal with their identity as Indians. In this effort they
face a microcosm of all the problems with which their culture struggles.
Of course, cultural conflict--as a longterm social and economic process--is
also related to risks associated with low socioeconomic status (see, for
example, Hafner, Ingels, Schneider, & Stevenson, 1990).
Many Indian youth also face the hazards of post-traumatic stress. This
is a state in which isolation, fear, guilt, shame, depression, anger, irritability,
and other symptoms follow a trauma. Native peoples' history of oppression
and present circumstances mean that the risk of trauma is comparatively
high. The immediate family of many Indian youngsters likely includes individuals
who experienced the concentration camp existence of the first reservations;
involuntary confinement at boarding schools; or various other social, psychological,
and spiritual insults. Life expectancy for Indians is considerably less
than for the general public (Indian Health Service, 1990). Native youth
may experience post-traumatic stress first-hand, but also through living
and coping with someone else's trauma.
Choices concerning alcohol and substance abuse are tied in some way
to self-esteem and the source of this esteem (Mason, 1985). Unfortunately,
Indian program specialists nationwide can cite various examples, including
test results, that show tribal youth demonstrate lower self-confidence
than the population at large.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT CONCEPTS
In 1988-90, staff in two projects of the Department of Education's Drug-Free
Schools and Communities program interviewed specialists and community workers
to identify what Native people felt could be done. The ideas obtained appear
in a series of seven pamphlets (see the lists at the end of this Digest).
Most programs, however, base their work on four key concepts.
* Alcohol and drug abuse are family and community problems. They hurt
all tribal members, not only the abuser but his/her family, friends and
associates as well. The negative effects of alcohol and substance abuse
are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
* Alcoholism is multi-generational. Presently, it is affecting 3-4 generations
and will affect generations to come.
* Alcoholism is like the tip of an iceberg. It rides atop a submerged
mass of other problems.
* Alcoholism often co-exists in Indian communities with certain specific
other problems like depression, self-hate, cultural shame, and stress-related
Project staff also identified a number of emerging attitudes across
Indian country. Tribes and Native communities, for example, report that
they are taking steps themselves to eliminate abuse. The sentiment is growing
that the best--perhaps only way--to conquer Indian alcohol and substance
abuse is for tribal people to take the initiative. Indian involvement and
direction are essential.
In addition, optimism that success is possible characterizes these efforts.
Native American tribes and communities are becoming increasingly confident
that their members can reject abuse, and, more importantly, will continue
to reject it in the future.
It is also becoming widely recognized that, in its struggle against
abuse, a tribal community's most valuable resource is its own people. Allies
in this cause include parents and families, school personnel, social service
providers, and physical and mental health care providers. In addition,
court, law enforcement and tribal government personnel can provide valuable
Tribal traditions and spiritual values are also being recognized as
providing an additional vital resource. These traditions and values must
be articulated and renewed. People of the community, it is being said,
must take part in all aspects of the effort against alcohol and substance
abuse. They need to feel involved and must believe that they have designed
and own the effort.
STEPS TOWARD SOLUTIONS
To be successful, local groups should draw support from the community.
Participants should work with the problem of substance abuse in their community
as they see it. A Native community might follow these steps to design an
* Get people together and ask community members to define how alcohol
and substance abuse specifically affect their youngsters.
* Encourage community members to talk about substance abuse.
* Ask questions to see what is currently being done to combat the problem
and identify what still needs to be done.
* Work through a community committee, develop a plan, and decide who
can help where. Look for ways to coordinate existing and new activities.
* Divide planning and implementation responsibilities among community
members. Recruit volunteers and use existing resource personnel.
* Find the gaps and seek training for local people where necessary.
* When necessary, identify and use outside resources but provide means
for assuring community control and responsibility for how these resources
are coordinated with local activities.
* Keep track of what takes place, including progress. Measure small
The Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana have included
these steps in their Blue Bay Healing Center (Native American Development
Many tribal and community workers believe that Native youth will make
better choices about their lives if youngsters know more about--and take
a more active part in--their tribal heritage. In this view, Native youth
achieve the positive self-esteem that comes with belonging to something
larger than themselves. In general, however, three types of programs stand
* Physical challenge programs use tribal culture and environments as
the basis for excitement and accomplishment, while underscoring the message
that there is no place for alcohol or substance abuse in the involved activities.
* Tribally sponsored chapters of national youth organizations (for example,
Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Campfire, and 4-H) provide a framework for self-actualization
* Peer support groups meet weekly so students can share thoughts and
feelings in a protected environment that recognizes Native heritage and
encourages development of healthy attitudes about life, including those
relating to substance abuse.
A variety of activities emphasize tribal involvement in such programs.
These activities range from traditional cultural practices like dancing,
sweat lodge, or other ceremonies, through incorporation of traditions into
contemporary events, to new events like alcohol- and drug-free tribal pow-wows
and graduation celebrations. The important thing is that the feeling of
an individual's tribal pride and unity be transmitted.
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
The consensus appears to be that the best means for fighting alcohol
abuse in a Native community is one that the community develops itself.
Such an approach has the key advantage of belonging to the people it aims
Though programs and activities vary, results are encouraging. Statistics
show a 61 percent reduction in the Native American death rate from alcoholism--but
a figure that (as of 1987) was still three times that for all races in
the U.S. (Indian Health Service, 1990).
Though a lot has been accomplished in recent years, much hard work remains.
Fortunately, Native people themselves have begun to describe the ways and
establish the means for doing it.
Beauvais, F., Oetting, E., & Wolf, W. (1989). American Indian youth
and drugs, 1976-1987: A Continuing Problem. American Journal of Public
Health, 79(5), 634-636.
Four Worlds Development Project. (1984a). The vicious cycle of prejudice.
(Adult Education Series, Discussion Paper Three). Lethbridge, Alberta:
Lethbridge University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 266 895)
Hafner, A., Ingels, S., Schneider, B., & Stevenson, D. (1990). A
profile of the American eighth grader: NELS:88 student descriptive summary
(National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988). Washington, DC: National
Center for Education Statistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 322 221)
Indian Health Service. (1990). Trends in Indian health. Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Mason, V. (1985). Drug abuse and self-concept among Native American
youth. Unpublished dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque,
Native American Development Corporation. (1990a). Adolescence: A tough
time for Indian youth. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 326 340)
Native American Development Corporation. (1990b). Blue Bay: A tribal
approach to fighting alcohol and drug abuse. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 328 389)
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Division of Epidemiology and Prevention
Research. (1989). National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: 1988 population
estimates (DHHS Publication Number ADM 89-1636). Rockville, MD: Department
of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Alcohol, Drug Abuse
and Mental Health Administration.
Rhoades, E., Mason, R., Eddy, P., Smith, E., & Burns, T. (1988).
The Indian Health Service approach to alcoholism among American Indians
and Alaska Natives. Public Health Reports, 103(6), 621-627.
Four Worlds Development Project. (1984b). Reaching for wisdom: An annotated
bibliography for the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse. Lethbridge,
Alberta: Lethbridge University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.
ED 266 893)
Four Worlds Development Project. (1984c). Understanding and preventing
the problem of alcohol and drug abuse (Adult Education Series, Discussion
Paper One). Lethbridge, Alberta: Lethbridge University. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 266 893)
Native American Development Corporation. (1989). Protecting youth from
alcohol and substance abuse: What can we do? Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 314 232)
Native American Development Corporation. (1990c). Pass the word. Washington,
DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 326 344)
Native American Development Corporation. (1990d). Positive self-esteem
can protect Native American youth. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 328 385)
Native American Development Corporation. (1990e). Post-traumatic stress:
What some Indian youth and Vietnam veterans have in common. Washington,
DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 328 388)
Native American Development Corporation. (1990f). Strong tribal identity
can protect Native American youth. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 329 391)
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