DARE TO ASK: Do American Indians have a low physical
tolerance for alcohol?
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
Is there any truth to the stereotype that Native Americans cannot hold
R.D., female, Jacksonville
People whose cultures have been decimated by genocide face a great risk of
substance abuse. We demolished their cultures, stole their land and brought
about the death of well over 90 percent of their people. Who could endure this
kind of horror and remain intact?
The stereotype of Native Americans not being able to "hold" their alcohol is
accurate. Native Americans do not make an enzyme that helps break down alcohol
in the bloodstream.
Ron, 36, Houston
Alcohol was "discovered" probably no more than 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Not enough time has passed for the human species to have developed genetic
intolerance to a foreign substance.
Jim, Brooklyn, N.Y.
It has been passed down from generation to generation that Natives are
nothing but drunks. But each Native person is different. I'm Native American and
did not drink until I turned 21. Needless to say, a white girl said, "I have
never met an Indian who didn't drink."
Shon, 23, Akron, Ohio
Research has generally concluded that a higher proportion of American
Indians, African-Americans and Hispanics abstain from drinking than whites, but
members of these minority groups, when they do drink, tend to do so more heavily
Regarding genetics: Asians and Pacific Islanders are more likely than whites
to have a different form of the aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme (which breaks down
alcohol), and because of this, often have more facial flushing, nausea,
headaches, etc., when they drink. Thus - imagine this - they don't drink or
become alcoholics as much as members of the other groups.
Nothing's been found conclusively to bolster claims that Native Americans
have a physical predisposition toward heavy drinking - or, for that matter, to
having negative bodily reactions when they do imbibe.
While there are high incidences of alcoholism among American Indians, it's
because those who do drink tend to really drink, says Fred Beauvais, a Colorado
State University professor who has researched substance abuse among American
Indians for 30 years.
"The population in general of Indian folks are more sober than white folks,"
he said. "But there's a small portion that drink outrageously."
The good news is that a resurgence in traditional American Indian values now
has elders passing their core beliefs about abstention on to the younger
generation, with positive results, Beauvais said.
"They are intolerant to inebriation and to losing contact with reality . . .
that is a solid belief among the reservations. They need to be allowed the
resources to get back to their way of life."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information.