By taking a closer look at the interactions between the Europeans and the Native Americans we can better understand the introduction of alcohol. Alcohol played a big role in the trading industry between the Native Americans and the Europeans. It slowly began to change the Native Americans cultural and social situation. Alcohol was a better trade to the Indians rather than other trading goods like metals. Alcohol was already playing a big role in Europe and it is necessary that we understand that role first. Studying the Native Americans reaction to alcohol is important because it helps us understand their cultural, religious, and social norms. It is a big issue that Native Americans are six times more likely to be alcoholic then other ethnic groups therefor it is important to be educated as to why this is. Not only has alcohol affected their society, it has affected their health, their virtues, and over all what they stand for.
In England, long before the Europeans set to discover the “undiscovered” there were many Taverns and inns that sold alcohol. The Europeans even believed that alcohol could cure the sick as stated in an article by Ed Crews entitled Drinking in Colonial America, which is something the Europeans and Native Americans could agree on. Upon arrival in America, the English colonists continued to drink a fair amount of alcohol. English alcohol in the colonies came mainly from the Caribbean. The English Caribbean colonies had one major cash crop, sugar. While this sweet substance was very popular in England, the plantation owners quickly began to produce another valuable product, rum. The English plantations began to distill a great deal of it and sought to trade it, becoming one of their principle trade goods.
Economics is what made alcohol a key trading good. Alcohol was not a durable commodity, therefore when Natives traded furs for alcohol, the alcohol would soon run out, and the Native might be back, not necessarily the case with a knife, or a pot. As to why the natives incorporated alcohol into their own communities, this is a more complicated subject. There are many plausible reasons why Native American groups began to incorporate alcohol into their societies. One important reason is that Native religious practice placed an emphasis on transcendent experiences that allowed people to connect with the world of spirits. In order to achieve this state, one often fasted, or participated in sweat lodge rituals or vision quest. Alcohol may therefore have fit into some of their preexisting religious practices.
Another reason that alcohol made its way steadily into the society, is the sense of power, and lack of reservation that one felt when under its influence. What is put out by many of the primary documents is that for many Native Americans, alcohol was only to be partaken of in sufficient quantities to bring about a state of drunkenness, or losing one’s head. This sense of invulnerability seemed to be a very attractive thing, particularly in a culture where one’s position was directly tied to bravery, and strength.
Did alcohol affect natives in ways completely uncommon to other cultures? From the accounts, it would seem that when they drank, natives were liable to murder, steal, commit arson, kill their children, commit all sorts of sexually depraved acts, and become completely reckless. What is important to keep in mind when reading the many descriptions of Native American drunken behavior, is that these accounts come to us from the writings of Europeans, and often are accompanied with a bias and motivation not necessarily clear unless read in the context of conditions. Furthermore, there are accounts of Native Americans who consumed alcohol in moderation, they are simply not as numerous. This paucity of alternative accounts has created a negative stereotype of the drunken native as being the norm. Although many theories have been posited as to why Native Americans had a peculiar reaction to alcohol, no single theory has proven conclusive. What is conclusive is that Native Americans lacked any sort of cultural mores surrounding alcohol consumption. The art of getting drunk, honed over centuries of alcohol consumption by Europeans, was missing amongst Native groups, because they didn’t previously have alcohol. Thus, with no experience of its effects, and a large supply of potent alcohol available, it is unsurprising that natives communities would be caught by surprise by the powerful effects of alcohol. Another thing that is quite certain is that, Native Americans are not the only group of people who, when their world was changing in dramatic ways, turned to alcohol as a way of coping. Following the industrial revolution, alcohol consumption became far greater, as a way of dealing with a world rendered nearly unrecognizable.
More research needs to be done in order to better understand the alcohol trade in early North American history. It is clear that it played a key role in keeping the colonies financial viable. What has remained unfortunately more ambiguous is the role Native Americans played in proliferating and facilitating the spread of alcohol throughout their communities. Although alcohol had a tremendously negative effect overall on Native communities, it does provide an excellent avenue for better understanding the dynamics of these early encounters, at the intersection of wealth accumulation, colonial governance, and Native American culture.