It's our shame that's killing us

The latest issue of the American Indian Report features articles on the impact of drunk driving in Indian country. Sadly, the article states that the impact cannot be quantified, because tribes are reluctant even to keep statistics, let alone release those statistics for public consumption. Some of the tribes blame a lack of resources, saying that statistics of this kind are a luxury they cannot afford. One person even complains that the United States is failing to meet its trust responsibility by not providing adequate resources to tribal police departments for breathalyzers and computerized record systems. Others admit that they are reluctant to maintain such records because they support the stereotype of drunken Indians.

Earlier this week, a member of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission remarked that closing the liquor stores in Whiteclay, Neb., which borders the Pine Ridge Reservation, would not solve the alcoholism problem on the reservation. Commissioner Rhonda Flower said that curtailing liquor sales in Whiteclay would be like "putting a Band-Aid on a compound fracture." The activists trying to shut down Whiteclay's liquor stores responded, rightly in my view, that the owners of those stores are unscrupulously preying on Indian alcoholics for profit and that the State of Nebraska has collected $250,000 in ill-gotten taxes on beer sold in Whiteclay. Alcohol sales are prohibited on Pine Ridge, so Whiteclay, Neb., profits from its border location and its moral neutrality.

It seems to me, though, that the people quoted in the American Indian Report and the Whiteclay activists are missing a larger point. Essentially, they blame others for the devastating impact that Indian alcoholics inflict on their communities. Worse still, they look to others to solve the problems. While the State of Nebraska and the United States can and should be called upon to help, the responsibility for stopping drinking and the death it causes lies with us. Until we accept this responsibility, alcoholic tragedy will remain an all-too-common feature of American Indian life.

Let me establish my bona fides on this matter. My father was in many ways a lovely man. He was smart, he was charming and he was committed to justice for American Indians and all other oppressed minorities. He and my mother were civil rights activists and devotees of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But he was also an alcoholic, and no amount of principled and moral social activism could make up for his wretched behavior when he was drunk. He died drunk in March 1981 when the car he was riding in crashed into a tree. The young men he was drinking with also died.

I am hardly alone in this experience. Many, perhaps most of the Indians I know have gone through similar tragedies in their families. My children are not yet 20 years old and yet they have already had to attend the funerals of cousins killed by alcohol and substance abuse. Unrelenting tragedy has become a way of life for us. While Native American culture has many luminous features, it must be admitted that in most Indian communities, especially the large ones, death caused by drinking has become a prominent part of the communal life.

No enemy we face has greater potential to ruin us, both collectively and individually, than alcohol. Why, then, are we so reluctant to state this truth? We all know it. We see it in our daily lives in our interactions with other Indians. We hear it in our homes when an enraged drunk next door expresses his or her self-loathing by abusing spouse and children. We see it in Indian school classrooms, where children obviously suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are common. We read it in the news, when a drunk Indian commits multiple homicides with his automobile. We know all too well the devastation of alcoholism.

Yet, we do not want to talk about it. When tribal leaders gather, they talk about this and they talk about that, but they rarely talk about the one thing that does more to wreck Indian lives than any other does. When I was Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, out of the hundreds of tribal leaders that I met with and worked with, I could have counted on one hand the number who came to see me to talk about what to do about Indian alcoholism.

Tribal leaders know how important the issue is; they can't help but know. They attend the funerals of tribal members, of young people killed by alcohol. They comfort the mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters of those killed by alcohol or alcoholics. So why can't we talk about this in public? For God's sake, why aren't we doing something about it?

It's because we are so very ashamed. We are ashamed of Indian alcoholism. We are ashamed that our women are being beaten and raped, that our children are being sexually molested and that our elderly are being robbed by our alcoholics. We are ashamed, some of us, of our own alcoholism. We all participate in spinning a vast lie that we are not being destroyed by alcohol. Believe me, I know about lies, shame and denial. I had a positive genius for denying the obvious truth of my alcoholism until I sobered up in 1993.

There are many reasons for Indian alcoholism and Indian shame. The scientists finally are concluding that we are both physiologically and psychologically susceptible to alcoholism. The United States used alcohol as a weapon against our forebears. Well into the 20th century, unscrupulous traders and speculators used alcohol to steal from Indians. These are the predecessors of the Whiteclay liquor storeowners who sell their poison to willing Indian buyers.

Consider too the impact of the government boarding schools, where Indian children were taken from their parents, brutalized and taught to be ashamed of being Indians. There is such a thing as healthy shame, manifested in our old ways of teasing one another into societal compliance. What I speak of here, though, is a deadly, toxic shame that was used in the boarding schools, producing generations of Indians saddled with a crippling sense of shame. This toxic shame is what many of us have inherited from alcoholic adults in our families. If we don't deal with it, we will pass on this deadly shame to our own children.

Thus the roots of Indian alcoholism are deep, and the current generation of adult Indians bears no special blame for this problem. While we may not be to blame, though, we still have the responsibility to deal with it. It is our problem to solve. If we wait for the State of Nebraska or the United States to solve this problem for us, more generations of Indian people will be killed by alcohol.

A friend that I admire and respect wrote to me about the callous words of the Nebraska liquor commissioner saying that we must do something about this. I say if we want to stop Nebraska's profiteering on alcohol sales to Indians, and if we want to shut down liquor stores in Whiteclay, then let's put our minds together, garner our resources, and find ways to help the alcoholics at Pine Ridge to stop drinking. Let's say to the alcoholics in our own communities and in our own families that we will not tolerate alcoholic drinkers in our lives, and that if they must drink, they must leave. Let's make sure our children know that drinking is death for us, and that a non-drinking life is the only assurance we have against alcoholism and the misery it brings. Let's be responsible for fighting this scourge in our communities and spare no effort to drive it out of our lives once and for all. We can start by shining light on this problem, overcoming our discomfort and embarrassment and our fear of being stereotyped, and saying, "We're going to talk about this and work on it until we beat it."

Or we can just go on acting as though these problems are not so bad, and that if the United States would just live up to its promises, everything would be all right. But if we do that, it will be clear that it's our shame that's killing us.

Kevin Gover, a columnist for Indian Country Today, is a partner is the Washington, D.C. office of Steptoe & Johnson LLP. Mr. Gover's practice focuses on federal law relating to Indians and on Indian tribal law. He is the former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.