Plains Indians did not evolve to handle alcohol. Their most basic genome is Asian and did not evolve where people routinely drank alcohol of some kind with all meals as Europeans have. This is not a lot different from lack of immunity to smallpox. One’s body develops in a context and if the element, whatever it might be, isn’t there, then the body doesn’t learn what to do with it. That’s genes.
The memes were not there either. Indians drank like frat boys. Too much, too fast, to the point of passing out. Drinking happened someplace where the law wouldn’t come knocking because Indians drank illegally, which added that delicious element of evading authority. But the physiological consequences were more major than for some Northern European redneck, whether he drank beer in a bar or scotch at home. Indians had the kind of allergy that promotes addiction, like lead poisoning. One friend who went to college a teetotaller in the late Fifties, was held down so alcohol could be forced into him, and was hooked from then on. White people will be skeptical. Think heroin.
I was startled when I read the local newspapers from right after WWII and the Korean War. Quarter-page ads in the Browning paper made that Hugh Hefner pitch for being upper-class in the Brit style: wearing a smoking jacket in a wing chair at a warm hearth where a classy dog snored. Sipping something expensive from a cut glass decanter. The captions made it plain that this was the way successful men were. My family was very much WCTU until they began to be prosperous. Then there was wine on their table. Advertising works. So do genes. We’ve got new alcoholics, some from grade school years. And we’re not Native American.
Drugs and Indians were a little more familiar. The SW peyote vision groups were very patterned, very contained, and in a religious context. In Central and South America the use of atahuasca and the like were also consumed in a religious context, guided by an experienced overseer. Marijuana is a mostly peaceful substance, accepted enough that young NA professionals who picked up the habit in college continue it to alleviate the stress of trying to be a success. I’ve never known an Indian who admitted to using LSD, which surprises me, though I don’t know why they’d tell me. Tobacco and coffee are accepted drugs everywhere in the West. Kids everywhere huff glue and solvents. The real killers, the real violence promoters, are speed, cocaine, and meth -- brain rotters, behavior exploders, body eaters. I was in Saskatoon when meth first hit the town and a policeman told me that it meant that what were formerly drinking parties had become brawls that caused serious injury and death, but there was no way to prosecute because no witness/participant was sane enough to give an accurate account of what happened.
Though much of this amounts to money-making substance abuse, Plains Indians have always been interested in the management of their own consciousness through dreams, both the regular kind and the vision quests triggered by isolation and starvation, maybe dehydration. The mountains near here and the Sweetgrass Hills are seeded with dream beds where someone made themselves a little man-sized fence to lie down in while they meditated and waited for a vision. These are near-Tibetan practices. I should think they would work against violence, promoting self-control under stress. But they could be preparation for courage as warriors.
The ordeal way of addressing consciousness, like the Sun Lodge vows to put skewers through the chest and back muscles and dance against a taut rope until they tear free, is a different kind of self-challenge. I’m suspicious of it, because it seems to me like showing off, trying to get power, self-abuse.
The ultimate self-violence is suicide, often by hanging, sometimes in jail where it was thought by jailers that all means had been removed. Kids play with blacking out themselves and each other by shutting down the blood supply in their necks. Suicide is rage and despair -- one often sets off others. I would like to see statistics on how many men who assault women later commit suicide. In modern institutionalized society, it is so often female nurses and teachers who must control male children that some men become deeply misogynist. That’s aside from the shame of the man who beats up his wife when he’s drunk or high. I’m not talking about alley people.
Here’s a crucial insight: both sex and violence are ways of creating internal drugs that cannot be controlled by either medical therapy or legal intervention. Testosterone and adrenaline are well-known molecules that intertwine in subtle but potent ways. Testosterone is the I-love-sex drug, but it is also the I’m-not-afraid-of-anything drug. It gives energy and courage, even creativity. Adrenaline is speed, rallying the body to do more, sharpening the senses, causing people who share danger to bond. Some of the internal drugs will damp down these internally produced molecules, so that formerly dynamic men will shrug, sleep, let opportunity pass them by, never rise to challenges or threats. Others will amp everything up.
A human being is in a sense a retort, a beaker, the container for molecular bodily reactions that can overwhelm rationality. Thus, we need to think about an ethical structure and a social setting that provide safeguards. Otherwise too many people become suicide bombers that explode their own families. Dramatic words, but a sharper scalpel than the hammer of good-versus-bad used by many people.
How do we teach people to self-monitor? How do we empower neighbors and intimates to intervene and then give them ideas about how to do it? What laws help and which rehabilitation schemes can we support instead of prisons where the chemicals bubble all day and night?
Maybe it’s better not to tell rez stories about this subject, so I’ll say I lived in low-rent apartments in Portland so I’d have more money for books. Across the hall lived a Japanese man with no furniture except his sleeping bag. He was a cocaine dealer but a pot user. Gentle but drifty, he would knock on the apartment door at 3AM to let me know my cat had had enough of nightlife and wanted to come in. He meant to get a real job -- sometime.
In the apartment below me was a single woman with a small boy. She had acquired a boy friend who was younger, desperate for money, and only there because he had no place to go. He was not good to the boy, though the woman let him stay because he was her babysitter. He was dealing cocaine as well. One day I heard him shout, “I’m going to kill you!” It sounded desperate. I went down there and knocked on the door. Everything went quiet. The woman answered. Over her shoulder I said to the man (I was bigger then he was.), “I’ll give you twenty minutes to clear out. If you’re not gone by then, I’m calling the police.” He made the deadline. The boy always grinned at me after that. The woman was angry but the boy was her future. Mine, too. But I didn’t offer to babysit.