Skip to main content

Historical Perspective

American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people live in urban and rural settings spread across North America. These groups have widely different geographies, cultures, and languages. These groups are America's indigenous, or original, people. While each group has its own beliefs, customs, and ceremonies, they also have much in common, including a great respect for the values of family, sharing, and cooperation. Native groups also share similar problems affecting their health, their environments, and their communities. While most Native people do not have a drinking issue, alcohol abuse is a significant public health problem in some Native communities.

Native groups have always shared a sophisticated understanding of the natural world. This understanding has led to advances in agriculture, astronomy, medicine, and many other areas. When Europeans came to colonize North America, they brought 10 plant-based medicines with them. At that time, there were more than 170 plant-based medicines used by Native tribes.1 Some of these plants had powerful psychoactive properties that were probably used for medicine and in ceremonies.

Historians and other researchers have looked back into Native histories to find the point at which problems with alcohol may have begun to arise. Some early Native cultures used fermented beverages in ceremonies. Typically, there were controls in place that prohibited or minimized exposure–especially to children and women of childbearing age. Many Native groups made and drank wines as an important source of hydration in places where water was either scarce or contaminated. These wines were generally low in alcoholic content–between three and four percent–and had significant nutritional value.2

Outside Influences

Alcohol use may have shifted from controlled ceremonial and medicinal use to more general use at about the time that Native cultures were exposed to European and Asian explorers, traders, missionaries, and colonists. In Alaska, new settlers exploited mineral and animal resources and took the profits with them. Foreigners also entered the homelands of American Indians and Native Hawaiians, bringing diseases, alcohol, and firearms. Early settlers not only exposed Native cultures to different forms of alcohol, but they also introduced patterns of heavy drinking, which was even more damaging. As communities and tribes came under physical and cultural assault and became decimated by disease, alcohol problems began to emerge in tribes for the first time.1

Early records show a pattern of distrust of and distaste for European alcohol among American Indian tribes. European alcohol was referred to as "fool's water" and "devil's spittle." There are also records of very early formal treatment of alcohol abuse; including sweat lodges, talking circles, and plant-based anti-craving medicines. Many tribes today are having success treating alcoholism using these same techniques.1

Drawing from Tradition

Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are also looking to their traditional roots to develop treatment programs that emphasize the strengths of their cultures. Many Alaskan programs stress the importance of families in the recovery process and include practices such as the steam bath, which is the Alaska Native version of the sweat lodge. In Hawaii, a treatment program teaches Native clients about their ancestors, history, and culture to help them see that they are connected to something larger than themselves. The name of the program is Ho`omau Ke Ola, which is Hawaiian for "to perpetuate life as it was meant to be."

Moving Forward

The FASD Center is committed to increasing awareness about alcohol use and FASD. By doing so, we hope to help Native communities work to share information, promote healing, and create positive futures for generations to come.


  1. Remarks by William L. White, M.A., “Native American Resistance to Alcohol Since First Contact,” given at the Fourth Annual Circles of Recovery Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, September 19, 2003 (Part 1: Exit Disclaimer Graphic; Part 2: Exit Disclaimer Graphic).
  2. Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin, 1996.