Before they began to encounter European explorers and fishermen in the sixteenth century, very few indigenous people of the eastern coast of North America had ever tasted alcohol, and none had experienced anything more than the mild inebriation of fermented drinks used ceremonially. Nothing prepared them for the effects of distilled spirits. In 1609, explorer Henry Hudson offered alcohol to a group of Munsee Indians he encountered on Manhattan Island. His purpose in giving them drink was to determine “whether they had any treaherie in them,” but he was surprised when one of the Munsee became intoxicated. “[T]hat was strange to them, for they could not tell how to take it.” It must have been memorable for the Indians as well. (One theory of the origin of the word “Manhattan” is that the Indians named the island manahactanienk—the “place of general inebriation.”)
The experience of getting drunk for the first time could be terrifying for anyone. Not long after Hudson’s encounter with the Munsee, Captain John Smith, the military leader of the colony at Jamestown, gave liquor to a native man who he was trying to revive. “[I]t pleased God to restore him againe to life, but so drunke and affrighted, that he seemed Lunaticke,” Smith said. The man’s brother was “tormented and grieved” by his wild behavior.
Once the Indians lost their fear of alcohol, they fell in love with it. The euphoria of intoxication brought temporary relief from the pain of dispossession and death. A Jesuit attempting to convert the Cayuga Indians in the seventeenth century reported that they would announce their intention to get drunk before a drinking episode. “I am going to lose my head,” a man would shout. “I am going to drink the water that takes away one’s wits.” Another missionary noted that the native people appeared to relish the disorientation that occurred as the alcohol took effect. “They rejoice, shouting, ‘Good, good. My head is reeling!’ ” Once a man was drunk on alcohol, he found new powers in himself. When an Ottawa Indian was asked what brandy was made of, he said, “Of hearts and tongues. . . . [A]fter I have drank of it, I fear nothing and I talk like an angel.” The drinker experienced a surge of self-confidence. “[I]n their drunkenness, . . . they become persons of importance, taking pleasure in seeing themselves dreaded by those who do not taste the poison,” a third missionary said. Of course, inebriation also made Indians more vulnerable to manipulation by white men.
The Europeans expressed shock over the self-destructive way the Indians drank. Alcohol abuse was certainly not unknown among whites, particularly those living on the frontier where many fur traders were killed in drunken brawls. But coming from cultures that had encountered alcohol centuries earlier, some of them had clear rules against abusing alcohol. Prohibitions against drunkenness were spelled out in Christian scripture, Western social etiquette, and even law, but the natives had no prohibitions against getting drunk. Wasn’t that the point? One Indian observed: “The Great Spirit who made all things made everything for some use, and whatever use he design’d anything for, that use it should always be put to; Now, when he made rum, he said, Let this be for Indians to get drunk with. And it must be so.”
From the beginning, Indians drank to get drunk, to escape. “[G]ive two Savages two or three bottles of brandy. They will sit down and, without eating, will drink one after another until they have emptied them,” a missionary said. At first, there were limited supplies of alcohol in America. But if the Indians didn’t have enough brandy or rum to get everyone drunk, they gave it all to a chosen few. “And if any one chance to be drunk before he hath finisht his proportion (which is ordinarily a quart of Brandy, Rum or Strong-waters), the rest will pour the rest of his part down his throat,” a colonist wrote. The Europeans agreed that the Indians had a drinking problem. “They will pawne their wits to purchase the acquaintance of it,” Thomas Morton said in 1637. “Their paradise is drinking,” Louis Antoine de Bougainville observed a century later.
On the rez today, things aren't much different. President Obama at least realized this and made crucial inroads to helping, but under Trump, well, under Trump we're basically all screwed, aren't we.