Indigenous people in the United States were the first to grow, cultivate, and utilize tobacco. When these Indigenous nations first started using tobacco, tobacco had limited and sacred duties. When European colonizers arrived, though, the use for, amount of, and constitution of tobacco began to change. In fact, everything about tobacco changed, even the name. Tobacco was a plant that opened the ‘New World’ to the rest of the world, but the legacy of tobacco use by the entire world is the difficult circumstances for Indigenous people after Europeans began to manipulate it: poverty, drug abuse and addiction, and genocide.
First European Contact
It’s estimated that tobacco has existed in the present-day Americas for at least the past 8,000 years. The bright, leafy green was cut, dried, and either crumbled into pipes, or rolled into cigarettes. Tobacco was used by nearly every Native Nation in the present-day Americas. While it was used for dramatically different reasons than the ones for which the Europeans used it, tobacco was consumed in the same way: rolled into cigarettes, chewed, or smoked out of a pipe. In some places in Central and Southern Mexico, artwork depicting native priests smoking cigarettes exists in the ruins.
One of tobacco’s chief functions was healing. Though the products that we know as a carcinogen today may not seem to have redeeming qualities, the original plant was not poisonous, and was often used as both medicine and as an offering to the various pantheons of different First Nations. There’s no record of anyone smoking constantly, or anyone becoming addicted to using tobacco. Yet, tobacco was readily available, and continued to be used scrupulously for thousands of years of Indigenous history. Parts of the tobacco plant were used to cover and treat wounds on soldiers, and there were reports that chewing tobacco was used to cure toothaches. Some types of smoked tobacco were used in the fight against upper-respiratory ailments, including asthma and bronchitis. When colonizers tried tobacco, they knew they had something that could become very popular, and taking as much of it as possible became a goal.
History of Alcohol as a Manipulator
Like any culture, there were some indigenous nations that manufactured their own alcohol before the arrival of European colonizers. Most of the people creating these fermented beverages lived in the Southwest, and there were dozens of different varieties of these kinds of drinks. As Europeans pushed further and further into the territory of Indigenous nations, trade began, and so did the manipulation. When they encountered Indigenous people, traders offered alcohol in exchange for useful items like animal skins and food. The type of alcohol that was given to Native nations by these traders was much stronger than anything that Native people had experienced themselves. As the United States steadily grew in population, including the Africans who were purchased or kidnapped to work as slaves in The Americas, the lands on which Native nations resided became the focus of a series of damaging and deadly campaigns against Indigenous people.
Traders, trappers, miners, and other European colonizers were already aware that Native people were willing to accept alcohol as payment, and that some people would be willing to drink with them. With this information, colonizers increasingly approached heads of Native nations with gifts of alcohol, and after they were intoxicated, managed to talk them into signing over land and resources to be owned by the Europeans. Though, by the 18th century, sober collectives were slowly growing in some Native circles, alcohol was still used against Indigenous people to keep them drunk, sick, and unable to make informed decisions when dealing with the colonizers. Add in the strange diseases destroying more and more people, and wars that erupted between Indigenous nations, and between Indigenous nations and Europeans, and the populations continued to dwindle. Over time, stripped of their healthy, vibrant ways of life, Native people languished on reservations, and continued to consume more and more alcohol to deal with their desperation.
Legacy of Alcoholism
The damage done to Indigenous people is easy to see on reservations. There are homes that lack electricity and/or running water, the quality of education is often poor, and people struggle with various addictions, including alcohol addiction. It is extremely important to consider the historical context, in its entirety, to understand why alcohol addiction is so rampant on reservations. Indigenous people are far more likely to die of alcohol-related causes than anyone else. Native teens are the adolescent group most likely to develop issues with alcohol, and school officials on and off reservations have had a difficult time trying to keep Native children and teens away from drugs. Infant mortality is high, and heart disease, diabetes, and domestic violence makes the situation worse. Indigenous people are also at elevated risk to experience police violence, and Native women go missing every year without receiving the coverage they deserve. Though the issues may seem unrelated, remembering the legacy of alcohol addiction means understanding that alcohol addiction among Indigenous people is something that started with trade, but turned into a threat.
The seemingly-desperate situation with Indigenous people won’t always be this severe – some companies, including The Rosetta Stone, have taken up the enormous task of recording pre-contact Native languages, and creating formats to teach them to anyone who is interested in learning them. Over the course of the 20th century, many Indigenous nations were able to gain some autonomy, and open their own colleges. More education and more opportunities could lead to a drastic change in the lives of Indigenous people, including those who live with alcohol and drug addiction. The first Native women have been elected to represent more than just their people, but entire sections of American populations. Native nations have recently taken steps to sue pharmacies that have been negligent in their sales of opioid medication. Alcohol addiction on reservations has a new enemy: specialized rehab programs created for Native people living with addiction. If you or someone you know may be dealing with alcohol addiction, there are options for recovery, and a new start.
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