A Brief History of Indian Alcohol Policy

Prohibition, Alcohol as a Weapon, and the Myth of the Drunken Indian

A few years ago, Nebraska decided to shut down all the beer stores in the Town of Whiteclay. There were only four of them, but that’s actually a lot when you consider that the town only has 12 residents. Thing is, Whiteclay borders the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is legally dry but still has an enormous problem with alcohol abuse. Those four beer stores were selling 4 million cans a year, very little of it to those 12 residents. The state swept in and closed the stores (the move survived a court challenge from the owners), and the feds gave the reservation a $500,000 grant to build a new treatment center. Uncle Sam to the rescue? Let’s back up.


From the time the first white settlers arrived on the east coast, there was a sense that alcohol would play a role in their relationship with native peoples. Initially shared or used for bartering, most settler communities quieted their drinking when it became clear that it was an issue for the tribes. While some Native Americans had made alcoholic beverages themselves for centuries, most of the east coast tribes did not, and even among tribes that did it was usually reserved for rituals. The quantity of booze the Europeans brought, and the lack of cultural standards among some native peoples for when and how it could be consumed, made for a bad situation.[i] With the settlers largely at the tribes’ mercy, they worked with chiefs to make sure alcohol wouldn’t cause any issues. Throughout those early years, individual traders might barter with booze, but official policy was not to allow it.

Over the decades, as European influence grew and the power dynamic shifted, that official policy stayed in place. What began as an effort to control a substance that had understandably posed an adaptation challenge for native people grew into the racist and paternalistic notion that Native Americans could not handle alcohol or be trusted to regulate it themselves. The two pillars of this theory were 1) that natives were not mentally, emotionally, or culturally sophisticated enough to handle booze; and 2) that there was actually a genetic difference in American Indians that made them particularly susceptible to problem drinking. There is absolutely no scientific basis for this latter point, but it took root in white society. What modern academics call the “Myth of the Drunken Indian” — powerless, hopeless, out of control — became the dominant narrative around which Indian alcohol policy was built.

When the United States was formed, the Federal government picked up this baton. The Constitution gives the Feds the authority to regulate commerce with Indian tribes just as it does interstate or international commerce. The Act of 1802 put that into action, setting rules and policies for trade with the tribes. Selling or trading alcohol was totally banned, but the vagaries of the law (not defining Indian Lands, not laying out a punishment for offenders) made it unenforceable and ineffective. Amended versions and new laws put out every so often during the 19th century ostensibly tried to close these gaps, but usually just created more confusion. This legislative incompetence was often the fault of disinterest or ignorance on the part of the government, but at other times it was of a more sinister origin. By selectively enforcing vague laws, the United States was able to use alcohol as a weapon, sowing discord and sickness that limited the ability of the tribes to fight the acquisition of their lands and the suppression of their cultures and identities.

In the 20th century, Federal Indian policy began to treat Native Americans less like an active enemy, and more like a conquered one. The emphasis shifted from control to care, the latter just as paternalistic as the former. The two themes of the century were the growing bureaucracy of Indian services and a seemingly-contradictory attempt to shift control to the tribes themselves. As part of that effort, government-mandated prohibition on Reservations was finally lifted in the 1950s. Most stayed dry, understandably afraid of what would happen if they legalized alcohol within their borders. Neighboring towns have also gone dry at states’ insistence, and enforcement is better than it was in earlier years, but problems persist. Over 11% of deaths among Native Americans are attributable to alcohol, nearly four times the national average.


Alcohol and other drug abuse is endemic in communities that have suffered displacement, cultural disruption, and lack of opportunity. To see that, one need only look at the crack epidemic of the 1980s or the current opioid epidemic. There are few groups on earth who have experienced those conditions to the extent of indigenous peoples like the American Indian.[ii] Finding a solution to such a deep-seated problem is complicated, to put it mildly, especially when the most common strategy for individuals – physically moving away from the problem – runs counter to the overarching goal of maintaining cultural autonomy.

The most widespread strategy, prohibition on reservations, seems to look a lot like national Prohibition did in the 1920s: effective at curbing drinking overall, but with negative side effects. A lot of those alcohol-related deaths are from drinking and driving, binge drinking, crimes committed while drinking, and other impacts of pushing alcohol further away and further underground. When Whiteclay stopped selling beer, some residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation said they saw positive changes; at the same time, sales at liquor stores at the nearest wet towns doubled or tripled, even though they were much further away.

As flawed as prohibition might be as a solution, though, any immediate change to that policy would probably cause even more problems. This is the long fight, one of treatment and education. It is one that Native Americans have been waging for centuries.


[i] Rules and ideas about the role of alcohol would of course develop in Native American circles over time. See Mancall pp.63-84
[ii]The same issues are found in other oppressed indigenous populations like the aborigines in Australia.

Sources (apparently this was a hot topic in the 90s):
Miller, Robert J. and Maril Hazlett. “The Drunken Indian: Myth Distilled Into Reality Through Federal Indian Alcohol Policy.” Arizona State Law Journal, Vol. 28.1, 1996
Mancall, Peter C. “Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America.” Cornell University Press, Ithaca: 1997
Unrau, William E. “White Man’s Wicked Water: The Alcohol Trade and Prohibition in Indian Country, 1802-1892.”University of Kansas Press, Lawrence: 1996

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