2018-06-14 / Voices

Making Fun of Alcoholism


In teaching Native American history, we need to revisit historic trauma on many levels so that we better understand the issues we face today. Sometimes when an individual has problems with alcohol or drugs, he or she points to some personal trauma that occurred earlier in their lives. Recovery for that person may mean facing whatever that trauma was, forgiving and seeking the right help to heal.

The factors that are listed for causes of alcoholism among Native people are often economic issues, domestic abuse, and physical and mental health issues, and “cultural loss.” If you take all of those issues on individually it all stems from loss of language and culture. Or historic trauma through the loss of traditional territory and homelands. These problems didn’t just spring up in the last century for Lakota people. Responsibility needs to be taken by the majority culture who benefits from the use of the land and its resources.

The Lakota people did not just all of a sudden “give up;” everything was systematically lost by a proud people. The loss of large tracts of traditional homelands; government education policies (boarding schools where children were punished for speaking their language); and violation of treaty obligations.

So, when did alcoholism, for example, as we witnessed it at White Clay, Nebraska start? The Lakota people were resilient through the 1920’s and 1930’s when the Lakota men worked in agriculture in the Scottsbluff area (sugar beets) and in ranching the Sandhills of Nebraska to survive.

It was off the reservation where the men would gather together and drink cheap liquor. The women did not participate in the drinking. Violence usually ensued and the Lakota women were the protectors of the children. It wasn’t until later that they joined in the drinking after working in the fields in Nebraska where farmers and ranchers hired Lakota men and women. Beginning in the 1960’s Lakota people were replaced by Mexican migrant workers.

The trips into Nebraska continued as was common at White Clay, to purchase alcohol. In the beginning it was something the men did after work; as no work was to be found, the men stood around on the streets while the same farmers and ranchers who had previously hired them hired Mexican workers (they still do).

When we talk about unemployment, it was not that the Lakota men did not seek work. That was how they survived the Depression in the 1920’s by pooling their money and returning to the reservation with farm products (potatoes) and coffee, sugar, flour and other food items. They grew gardens and had root cellars. It took families (like the Black Elk family in Manderson and others) to work out ways to keep from starving in the early years of the reservation (late 1800’s to early 1900’s).

For Lakota people, resilience and adaptability were important for survival into the 1960’s and 1970’s with their culture intact. Where Pine Ridge “fell apart” was after the occupation of Wounded Knee in the 1970’s. What saved us, the Religious Freedom Act (1978), also came out of those troubled times. In 2018, we are in a better position, on Pine Ridge to save our culture and language because of the strength of the annual fasting and praying that occur through the Sundance.

In the end, with alcoholism at Pine Ridge, it is a personal choice to seek healing and to make the individual decision to reject something that will kill you: alcohol especially. As a member of a family where all of my siblings, three brothers, and three sisters, all died from complications from alcoholism, the most effective choice (day-by-day) for me, as a survivor, is to care about someone else.

It doesn’t help Lakota people at Pine Ridge to live in a state, in the heart of their traditional homelands, where racism seems to be a state “sport”. Take the sign posted in Hill City by a local winery advertising “Red Ass” liquors. When I first drove by that sign I felt a sting on my face. What helped me was to realize that sometimes when we laugh at others, it is because we cannot stand the fact, that we are just as “witko.” A small sign like that, thinking it fools everyone, is a sure sign of the insecurity of a people (European settler colony) whose history in the He Sapa, represents a single drop in the bucket, when it comes to those sacred hills.

Delphine Red Shirt can be reached through email at

Delphine Red Shirt:

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