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Liquid Poison

American Indians and the tumult in their cultures precipitated by the arrival of alcohol.


MAN: [SINGING] Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey. Bad, bad whiskey made me lose my happy home. When I left home this morning, I promised I would think. To stay real straight and sober, I swore I wouldn’t drink.

PETER: White Clay, Nebraska has a population of 12 people and sold nearly 4 million cans of beer last year. The tiny town is two hours from the nearest city, but a two minute walk from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Until 2013, the Oglala Sioux tribe had banned alcohol at Pine Ridge, where the vast majority of families struggle with alcoholism. But they couldn’t keep residents from walking across the border to one of White Clay’s four liquor stores. And many did.

BRIAN: In 2012, the tribes sued White Clay’s liquor stores and several major brewing companies. The tribe accused the companies of encouraging criminal drinking by selling alcohol to people who lived on a dry reservation. A federal judge dismissed the tribe’s case.

ED: Now, the story of an Indian Community resisting the pressures of the alcohol trade has deep roots. Those roots go all the way back to the end of the 16th century. That’s when British colonists decided that the best way to make Indians into good colonial subjects was to, as strange as it seems, sell them alcohol.

Now at face value, this is a pretty strange idea. So I sat down with Peter Mancall, a historian at the University of Southern California, to try to figure out what those early British colonists could possibly have been thinking.

PETER MANCALL: So there are a number of things that they want from Native peoples. I mean, they want them to convert to Christianity. And they want to sell them things and buy things. But they really emphasize time and again that one of the things that’s wrong with Native peoples is they have this sort of collectivist ethos, that they’re not sort of individual market-oriented people.

And so how do you make them market-oriented? And the answer they came to is, well, we have to sell them goods that they will want. And in some sense, the two ideal commodities to introduce them to Indian country were gunpowder and alcohol. And they were ideal, because as long as natives did not make them themselves, they would continually come back to colonists to buy them.

And in that act of coming back to colonists, in addition to generating profits for the sellers, they are also then beginning to participate in the kinds of market behavior that was one of the core pillars of civilization. There’s this moment when Sir William Johnson, who’s the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies, a guy who lives out in Mohawk country, who really knows as much about the Native peoples as any colonist, when sort of writing about, should we get rid of the alcohol trade that is spreading to British officials, should we get rid of it, he’s sort of torn. Because he sees the devastation of it.

And at the same time, he says well basically, if we stop selling Indians alcohol, then what are we going to sell them? Because they really don’t need that many shirts, or that many pairs of leggings, or that many coats. And so if we don’t have alcohol to sell them, it will reduce the incentive for them to participate in the larger market economy. Then his words, they’ll become indolent. That is, they’ll become lazy, and that will be an impediment to their larger mission of civilization.

ED: So what could go possibly wrong with selling people alcohol and gunpowder, right? [LAUGHS].

PETER MANCALL: Well, you got right to the punch line. Exactly. What could possibly go wrong?

ED: You could probably guess what went wrong. Alcohol-fueled violence in Indian country. Violence that mostly hurt other Indians. It impoverished tribes who traded their goods for rum, rather than for tools or clothing. And it bolstered white stereotypes of Indians as drunken, undisciplined savages.

Now, not all white colonists were in favor of the alcohol trade. Some local officials worried that it would make Indians more violent in general. A lot of missionaries urged colonial authorities to ban it altogether. Indian converts to Christianity supported these efforts. But Peter Mancall told me that the most effective push for Indian temperance came from indigenous revival movements.

PETER MANCALL: Really, starting in the 18th century, a number of native religious leaders came to really question the long-term relations that Native peoples were having with European colonists. And by the time we get to the mid 18th century, some of those leaders, like the Delaware prophet, Neolin, had really begun to articulate a sense that life had really deteriorated for Native people since colonization, and they had to move towards a new relationship with each other and a new relationship with the world of the spirits.

And so, we begin to see these Nativist movements, in which religious leaders are instructing members of their communities to sort of put to the side everything that colonists had brought them. Get rid of domesticated livestock. Let’s go back to if we’re going to eat meat, let’s get it from the hunt. Get rid of European style clothing. Get rid of anything about Europeans. Get rid of, in fact, Christianity. And then, also get rid of alcohol.

ED: So alcohol is embedded in this larger—

PETER MANCALL: Exactly. Alcohol is embedded in this larger effort to sort of reclaim their universe.

ED: So what did whites think of this? Did they support these movements? Did they think it was still going to take state action, or some religious action by white Americans? Or did they applaud this?

PETER MANCALL: Well, you know, that’s a great question. Because you would think that Euro-Americans who see the consequences of destructive drinking would embrace these sort of Nativist movements. Would say anything that can diminish the sales of alcohol among Indians is a good thing.

But European Americans, for a long time, were very suspicious of Native revivalist movements and moments. We see that most dramatically on the Northern plains at the end of 19th century with the United States government response to the Ghost Dance. I mean, the Ghost Dance is a religious revival movement in which people prayed for a world in which the influences of Europeans would disappear, and the ancestors would come back, and harmony would reign.

And then through a series of destructive pathological misunderstandings, the United States government decides that it is going to crack down on this religious observance and attack them. And so, I think in some sense from the colonial period into the 19th century—and then you could have a debate, I suppose, at the 20th century, Euro-Americans have never been especially comfortable with Native American Religious movements, even though sometimes those movements, the Native movements, have the same ends, temperance, as the Euro-American movements.

ED: That was Peter Mancall, Professor of History at the University of Southern California. His book is called Deadly Medicine, Indians and Alcohol in Early America.