Native American DrinkingThomas Hill’s Native American Drinking is a major contribution to the anthropology of alcohol use and abuse among Native Americans. Ethnography, ethnohistory, and biological anthropology are woven into one of the most well-rounded and comprehensive volumes on the subject. Native American Drinking compiles and revises a number of Hill’s articles on drinking behavior in the upper Midwest.  Hill’s descriptions and analyses of drinking behavior among the Indians of Sioux City in the late 20th century remain the best ethnographic accounts of Native American Drinking behavior in the literature. The detailed and nuanced exploration of the varied contexts of drinking behavior add a dynamic dimension that goes beyond studies of the incidence of alcohol dependency so prevalent in the literature. The discussion of problem drinking is framed by synthesizing recent research concerning ethnic differences in the genetics of alcohol metabolism. Hill deftly situates patterns of drinking within the social and economic circumstances of individuals and traces changes in alcohol through the life cycles of individuals.  Through a careful and cogent use of historical documents, informed by the insights developed in his ethnographic work, Hill demonstrates how drinking styles and patterns of alcohol use changed among the Nebraska Winnebago in response to social conditions. The historical spread of Peyotism and its role in curbing alcohol abuse are also examined. More significantly, Hill draws from this history lessons that are relevant for contemporary approaches to alcohol counseling and treatment programs. –Dr. Eric Henderson, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Northland Pioneer College

Native American Drinking is a “must read” for anyone curious or concerned about Native American Drinking. The book is comprehensive and carefully researched. It is geared toward both academic audiences and the wider public. By virtue of the topic and the breadth of complicated and often contentious issues encompassed in the book, Native American Drinking will likely spark lively discussion and debate.  A particular strength of the volume derives from (1) its thorough coverage of studies conducted by a broad array of different scholars with respect to Native American Drinking and (2) considerable and rich data collected by Hill … among Native Americans in Sioux City, Iowa, with respect to their drinking histories and drinking impact. English language publications on the topic are thoroughly referenced.

In Hill’s field work, Native Americans most heavily represented are from the Santee and Winnebago tribal groups living in Sioux City, Iowa. He conducted in-depth research with a restricted number of Native Americans as a means to better understand their complex life histories revolving around alcohol beverage consumption and related problems. Data were compiled from different agency records; from a wide range of written documents; from direct observation of events; through participation in various activities; [and] via various interview formats (formal, informal, focused)…. Hill’s decision to draw upon such a broad array of research methods and to focus on in-depth study of a limited sample derives, in part, from his prior training experience in a research and psychiatry program at the University of Washington, where he worked with mentors anthropologist James Spradley and psychiatrist Mansell Patterson….  The core of the book focuses on rich data that Hill collected among the Sioux City Indians…. Through stories related by the Native Americans, he provides a comprehensive picture of drinking patterns and life styles of urban Indians (chapter 4); changes over the life cycle with regard to “drinking norms and constraints” (chapter 5); “drunken comportment” as evidenced among the Sioux City Native Americans (chapter 6); issues regarding “problem drinking” (chapter 7); a focused ethnohistorical treatment of the Nebraska Winnebago (chapter 8);  a very compelling portrayal of the application of the Peyote religion for Native American therapeutic treatment of drinking-related problems (chapter 9); and insights Hill gained in this research regarding heavy drinking, diversity of drinking patterns within societies, and alternative perspectives to understanding these issues better (chapter 10).

Hill addresses ethnic/racial differences in alcohol metabolism in a section of the chapter on problem drinking.  It is worth reiterating here, his conclusion regarding the data on genetic variation and problem drinking among Native Americans: “no biological characteristics unique to North American Indians have been established that indicate they are at any greater risk of becoming problem drinkers than are Caucasian Americans.” –Dr. Linda Bennett, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Dean, U of Memphis

In Native American Drinking Hill contemporizes his earlier ethnographic and ethnohistorical conclusions by exhaustively applying to and evaluating the impact and significance of relevant sociopsychological, pharmacological, and dependence intervention studies published subsequent to the publication of his field work findings.  His summarization and integration of succeeding research findings in the substance use literature is blessedly coherent due in large part, I suggest, to Hill’s excellent writing and teaching skills honed in a long career as a researcher and educator.

Powerfully and persuasively written, Hill’s research findings and individual and topically focused publications of the 1970’s are presented, once again, as a book compendium that has as its themes, descriptions, analyses and theories of Native American Drinking behaviors.  I have pluralized each theme as it is Hill’s intent to underscore the complexity and multidimensional nature of the interactions between individual history, personality development, family culture, social networks, and societal norms.  Hill asserts that any attempt to describe a society’s attitude about any behavior and especially drinking is doomed to caricature if not all of the relevant psychosocial factors that shape the focal behavior are examined and accounted for in the research process and findings….

As an ethnographer, it was Hill’s consultants’ understandings of their and their fellow community members’ lifestyle decisions, the social categories they inhabited at any one time over a lifetime, especially as they pertained to their drinking styles that most impressed me.  The detail and honesty of Hill’s “consultants’” descriptions of the behaviors of their community members, significant others and themselves are “cannot put down reading”.  I found myself envious of Hill’s obvious ability to establish and maintain rapport with and, yes, even the complete trust his “consultants” had placed in the young researcher to get it right and not do harm.  Students interested in accomplishing ethnographic fieldwork focused on a sensitive and potentially stigmatizing topic would do well to read this exemplary text and then contact Dr. Hill to find out just how such rapport and trust gets established. –Dr. Joan Weibel-Orlando, Associate Professor Emerita, University of Southern California. Author, Indian Country, L.A.


Professional Review:

From the Midwest Book Review

“Excellent examination of a serious social issue, highly recommended….”


2014 Next Generation Indie Awards, Finalist in two categories:
1 Finalist: Multi-cultural, Non-fiction
2 Finalist: General, Non-fiction

Chapter Summary Example

Chapter 6 examines the nature of drunken comportment (behavior and attitudes) among Sioux City Indians. How do the chemical properties of alcohol interact with social and psychological variables to produce behavior? The discussion is framed in relation to the “time-out” model—one of the most influential and provocative ones in the literature. This interpretation argues that drunken comportment is learned behavior. Individuals act when drunk as they have learned to act through participation and interaction with others. In some societies, drunken comportment is expected to differ dramatically from sober behavior and does so. In other societies, an individual’s behavior is not expected to change, and it does not. If a society imputes certain causal properties to the consumption of alcohol, such as increased aggression, people may interpret a person’s behavior while intoxicated not as a function of his “moral character,” but rather as a function of his intoxication. As a result, drunken individuals may avoid the negative sanctions that would otherwise be applied to their behavior.

This model is compared to the more traditional “disinhibition” view (that alcohol causes people to put aside moral rules) and is evaluated in relation to two important activities significant to Sioux City Indians: “raising hell” and “visiting.” By examining actual episodes of drunken behavior in these contexts, the author argues that although the time-out model accounts more adequately for drunken behavior than the disinhibition view, it does not consider certain cultural factors in enough detail and overestimates the extent to which drunken comportment is treated as time out. Instead, the author develops what he calls a “new games” model and shows that it does a better job of accounting for drunken comportment.

Chapter 8 Excerpt

Appeal of Peyotism

Why did this religion spread so quickly among the Winnebago during the early 1900s? I believe its appeal was due to four major factors. First, peyote was seen as having the power to cure illness. Second, the new religion prohibited the consumption of alcohol. Third, Peyotism brought the promise of redemption for past failures and a moral code which provided a framework for future success. Fourth, because the consumption of peyote can produce visions and other states of altered consciousness, it provides empirical evidence of its power and, thereby, the truth of the religion. An additional factor concerning the Peyotists’ method of recruitment should also be mentioned. In the early years, the religion spread through the tribe along family lines. As Radin noted: “As soon as an individual had become a peyote eater he devoted all his energies to converting other members of his family.” This is significant because it suggests that a person might be induced to try peyote and become a member even though he was not unhappy or dissatisfied with his life. Once he began participating, however, the experience of the ritual, the “power” of peyote, and the social interactions with other Peyotists may have made a “true believer” out of him. As we will see, this appears to be what happened to Big Winnebago….

The power of peyote to cure illness would have been of great significance to the Winnebago at this time because they were suffering from variety of disorders. Venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and trachoma (an infectious disease of the cornea and conjunctiva) were prevalent. In 1903, Dr. Hart, the Winnebago’s physician, estimated that probably forty percent were afflicted by venereal diseases (Hart 1903). As Hart noted, accurately determining the number of Winnebago infected was difficult because they rarely consulted a physician and these diseases were apt to go unobserved and unreported. His estimate was probably fairly correct, however, for later in 1915 a hospital was constructed in the town of Winnebago and examinations for venereal diseases became a routine practice. Between 1922 and 1925, a physician made over 500 examinations for venereal diseases and found 84 percent positive (Moore 1928). These cases were not, of course, randomly selected, but they indicate the magnitude of the problem and are in keeping with other observations and estimations made during this period. Although tuberculosis had been noted among the Winnebago by earlier observers, the most accurate determination of its prevalence was based on a study conducted by Margaret Koenig in 1919. On the basis of agency records and field investigation, she concluded that for the decade from 1909 to 1919 a conservative estimate would be “that at least one out of every eight Winnebago [was] suffering from some form of tuberculosis, either active or latent” (Koenig 1921: 21). In 1915, as a result of a special investigation, trachoma was estimated to afflict about 50 percent of the total population (Dewey 1915). This figure was based on the examination and treatment of over 400 individuals out of a total population of 1100.

Peyote ethics did not focus narrowly only on alcohol use, but offered a comprehensive plan for living. By maintaining a stable marital relationship, working hard, fulfilling kinship obligations, and refraining from untoward acts such as drinking, a Peyote convert could achieve success in terms that the dominant society would recognize. As a result, Peyotism offered relief for a variety of physical and psychological problems and drew members from both the “traditional” or “conservative” segment of the tribe as well as from the younger individuals (like Albert Hensley and Oliver Lamere) who had been sent to government boarding schools off the reservation and who had missed the traditional Winnebago process of enculturation or socialization. Although the religion clearly could appeal to people who were suffering from guilt, anxiety, or self-doubt, others might participate in Peyote meetings simply to satisfy their curiosity or to honor a relative’s request to visit a meeting, and in the process become deeply committed to the religion due to the same social, psychological, and pharmacological forces that helped troubled individuals.
The importance of the moral code can be seen in the lives of the Peyotists. Many of them had “chased around” and had been heavy drinkers before joining the Peyote religion. I have already noted this in the case of John Rave. Albert Hensley had similar experiences. After returning from Carlisle, he began to drink. Hensley described his behavior: “At that time the Winnebago with whom I associated were heavy drinkers, and after a while they induced me to drink also. I became as wicked as they. I learned how to gamble and I worked for the devil all the time. I even taught the Winnebago how to be bad. [After joining the Peyote religion,] all the evil that was in me I forgot. From that time to the present my actions have been quite different from what they used to be. I am only working for what is good; not that I mean to say that I am good. “

… .Big Winnebago represents a particularly interesting case in relation to the importance of visions. In his younger years he had gone on vision quests in the traditional manner, but had not been successful. Under the influence of peyote, however, he experienced several visions that had a profound impact on him: “It was now late at night and I had eaten a lot of peyote and felt rather tired. I suffered considerably. After a while I looked at the peyote and there stood an eagle with outspread wings. It was as beautiful a sight as one could behold. Each of the feathers seemed to have a mark. The eagle stood looking at me. . . . Some time after this (I saw) a lion lying in the same place (where I had seen the eagle). I watched it very closely. It was alive and looking at me. I looked at it very closely and when I turned my eyes away just the least little bit, it disappeared. . . . Then I saw a small person (at the same place). He wore blue clothes and a shining brimmed cap. He had on a soldier’s uniform. He was sitting on the arm of the person who was drumming, and he looked at every one. He was a little man, perfect (in all proportions). Finally I lost sight of him. I was very much surprised indeed. I sat very quietly. ‘This is what it is.’ I thought, ‘this is what they all probably see and I am just beginning to find out. Then I prayed to Earthmaker (God): ‘This, your ceremony, let me hereafter perform….’”