Advertisement From Our Sponsors

Case 16: What’s in That Bottle? What’s in That Pipe?

The following case was sent by a reader of the Anthropology Newsletter:

"The dilemma I write about is that of alcohol abuse and culturally sanctioned intoxication. As an archaeologist I probably confront this less frequently than do ethnographers establishing long-term contacts with native groups in their villages. I feel the need to straighten some issues out in my own mind, however, so that I will be more comfortable entering different cultural situations in the future.

"While working in the Southwest I have always refused under all circumstances to make liquor runs for Native Americans, and I have never brought liquor into an area in which we were in close contact. While visiting friends in one of the Pueblo villages, however, I frequently saw bootleg deals, drinking, and consumption of substances that are against the laws of the United States. I am certain that such situations must be experienced even more frequently by trained ethnographers. I have enough contact with ethnographers to hazard a guess at the general standards of our discipline in this regard. Most would strongly discourage the consumption of substances that are foreign to the biological and cultural systems of a people, as alcohol is to the Native Americans.

"On the other hand, were I to return to West Africa and witness the production of palm wine and the ceremonial intoxication that goes along with it, I doubt that many in the discipline would find fault with me for following the crowd. These dimensions of human behavior are poorly understood, and the biological dimensions of culture contact are very complex. I hope we can continue to enjoy the experience of native celebrations without either leaving impressions of strict moral abstinence or corrupting those whose cultural patterns we are trying to learn."


Jerrold Levy, University of Arizona:

The correspondent raises the interesting question of whether it is ethical to drink with or in any way to encourage the drinking habits of Native Americans in the Southwest. The impression is given that the consumption of alcohol by American Indians is (1) against federal law; (2) somehow intrusive and dissonant to native cultures; (3) in some undefined way, physiologically more damaging for them than it is for Anglos or Blacks.

Indian prohibition was repealed in 1953 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indian reservations, however, remained dry unless they opted to permit the possession and sale of alcohol on the reservation. Presently, all reservations in Arizona and New Mexico are dry except for the Fort Apache reservation. The Papagos have local options for each reservation district and the Mescalers Apaches allow alcohol on their reservation at the Inn of the Mountain Gods which is tribally owned. The simplest ethical approach is to obey local law and to neither drink, bootleg, nor in any way to aid in the commission of a crime. Perhaps because of our national rejection of prohibition many cultural anthropologists have been willing to make exceptions, however. Many feel, for example, that it is alright to drink with Indians in government settlements or in the homes of good friends when the drinking is not to excess. Most frequently, tribal police do not enforce the law in areas where Anglo federal employees reside. It seems wrong to feel free to drink with the Anglos but not with those Indians who are similarly employed and who may live in the same compound.

I do not know how long the correspondent thinks it takes for a borrowed culture trait to become an integral part of an Indian culture. In any event, Indians today are best conceived as ethnic enclaves, since national institutions have penetrated reservation society at every level. Prior to contact, fermented beverages were used from southern Arizona to Mexico. The Pimas and Papagos used alcohol for ceremonial purposes. The Yumans, Apaches, and Zunis used it informally and secularly, according to Harold Driver. By 1776, the Pueblos of the Upper Rio Grande had been encouraged by the Spaniards to learn viniculture to supply wine for church needs. By 1850, these Pueblos purchased whiskey from shops located within the villages themselves and refused to have dealings with Indian Agents unless gifts of whiskey, sugar, and coffee were made. While alcohol consumption had and continues to have many deleterious consequences, Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton, in their book Drunken Comportment, have shown that the state of intoxication was not incompatible with the values and behaviors of most of the tribes of North America. Societies that valued dreams and visions as the means to enter the realm of the supernatural did not immediately see the difference between alcohol and the already familiar lobelia inflate, data stramonium, peyote, tobacco, and so on. It seems somewhat biased to be concerned solely with the ravages of alcohol among the Indians while ignoring the extent of the problem in the general population. To do so gives the impression that Indians are qualitatively different from other Americans, requiring a different set of ethical standards.

The idea that the American Indian has some racial trait that makes him unable to hold his liquor goes back about 200 years. At one time, the same was thought of the Irish immigrants in this country. Any drinking behavior offensive to the sensibilities of the dominant social stratum was attributed to inherent racial characteristics. Today, differences in drinking styles are thought to be determined by cultural and not physiological factors. While there has been some research which suggests that Orientals and, perhaps, Indians, metabolize alcohol more slowly than whites, the differences are not sufficient to account for the great variability in drinking styles observed in these and various white populations. Because there is great individual variation in rates of alcohol metabolizing within any population, making a blanket decision about Indians forbids alcohol to those Indians who metabolize at the average Anglo rate while permitting it to Anglos who metabolize at the Oriental or Indian average rate.

As Indians are citizens and do not comprise isolated societies with their own pristine cultures, it seems best not to dwell on what might have been done with Indians during the colonial period but rather to extend to them the same rights, privileges, and ethical considerations that are due to all of us.


Vine Deloria, Jr., University of Arizona:

After reading the complaint of the archaeologist who is asked to make "liquor runs" for Native Americans when doing scholarly work in their communities, my sympathy is wholly aroused. Native Americans have a similar ethical dilemma when confronted with non-Indians who desire to know "what's in that pipe" or who demand that Indians take them to certain ceremonies or assist them in obtaining buttons of peyote which, as everyone knows, are illegal substances for non-Indians who do not practice the religion of the Native Americans. Strangely, I believe that the pressures are considerably greater on Native Americans to provide non-Indians, particularly curious scholars, with substances which are not wholly within their cultural traditions than are pressures on non-Indian scholars to make liquor runs for Native Americans.

What can we do about these two problems? Prior to the repeal of the liquor prohibitions by federal law in 1954, the pressure on non-Indian scholars must have been intense. Since that time, however, they must have moderated since most of the Indians I know would only ask a scholar to make a liquor run if they themselves had insufficient funds to make the purchase, not because they were prohibited by law from obtaining the substance. I am further worried about the tendency of non-Indian scholars to force alcoholic beverages on Indians only to satisfy their longing for a sense of fellowship or belongingness with Indians. I seldom drink to excess but I do serve on a board with a former president of the American Anthropological Association. He quite frequently asks me to have a drink with him after these board meetings. He is usually very hurt if I refuse, so I find myself in dingy New York bars downing drink after drink with him. I can't tell whether he believes he can pry longstanding tribal secrets out of me after he has plied me with alcohol or whether he is truly lonely and simply wants a drinking companion to chat with before he takes the train back to Washington, D.C.

There are just no good guidelines to inform one of the proper behavior in such circumstances and I must often rely on my nativistic intuition before making a decision to drink with him.

One additional thought comes to me. Every so often I am in Washington, D.C., and I receive photocopies of government documents that are not generally available to the average person. The government employee who gives me these documents, and this can vary from a senator or congressman's aide to an Assistant Secretary of the Interior, often wants me to share these documents with other Indians. I know that the white man's tribal secrets are really part of his heritage and the last several administrations have gone to extravagant lengths to prevent such "leaks," as I believe they are called. Should I inform on the person who has provided me with these documents or should I immediately get up and depart the premises before I am involved in anything illegal? The clash of cultures often presents one with novel dilemmas for which there is no good set of guidelines.

Hopefully, what we are discussing is merely a transitional phase of culture contact and will fade away as we become more sophisticated in dealing with cultures different than our own. My best advice is to face each situation as it comes up and use one's best judgment. In the meantime I am not going to disclose what's in those pipes.