U of A study examines alcohol use in Native American population, helps debunk stereotypes

TUCSON – Popular culture often depicts Native Americans as drunks and binge drinkers.

But a recent study by University of Arizona researchers may help debunk some of those stereotypes.

The researchers examined alcohol use among Native Americans and weighed those results against the use among white people. They found alcohol use “comparable” among the two populations.

“This study raises a very serious question about the stereotype,” said James Cunningham, a social epidemiologist at the university. “It’s certainly inconsistent with the stereotype.”

“If we look at problem drinking such as binge drinking and heavy drinking, we found that the rates were essentially the same for the two groups,” he said.

But how did the stereotype start?

The report said that statements about alcohol use among Native Americans are centuries old.

It cited a 1847 U.S. government report in which an ethnologist stated: “It is strange how all the Indian nations, and almost every person among them, male and female, are infatuated with the love of strong drink. They know no bounds to their desire.”

The study also pointed to modern examples that cite higher rates of alcohol use and abuse among Native Americans.

So the researchers made the assumption that those statements make comparisons to whites, and they analyzed national survey data.

The study primary used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which surveyed more than 172,000 whites and more than 4,200 Native Americans from 2009 to 2013.

The researchers found similarities in drinking patterns, but they also noted that an estimated 60 percent of Native Americans abstain from alcohol use compared to about 43 percent of whites.

“I do think that if you hear something enough times, that you believe it,” said Teshia Solomon, director of the Native American Research and Training Center at the university. “I think many people in our community actually say that’s the way we were supposed to be.”

But she said the study may allow the community to move on and focus on other issues, like health care.

However, Miguel Flores Jr., CEO of Holistic Wellness Counseling & Consulting Services in Tucson, said he recognizes there’s a problem with alcoholism on reservations. His company treats drug and alcohol addiction and focuses on the Native American and Latino population.

He said it’s important to bring culture into treatment for Native Americans.

“When we look at our youth or adults, bringing them back to the culture, bringing them back to the ceremonies, helps them in the healing process to understand everyday life,” Flores said.

The study notes that the findings can help address “misinformation” about Native American alcohol consumption and raises some questions.

Cunningham said the study may motivate researchers to look into the causes of higher rates of liver disease in Native Americans.

Alcohol Consumption Infographic