Looking at those families, the strong point in their lives is their spirituality, and their stability as a family, and all their strengths: their commitment, respect, and discipline. They somehow were able to incorporate that into their family life, as they were going along. All their kids are following suit” (Clark Nov. 2010). Her nephew’s family members are all Latter Day Saints (LDS), and her cousin and her uncle were strong members. Elsie grew up a reformed LDS but watched her uncle take his ten kids to church every Sunday, saw the strength of their family, and thought, “There must be something in that religion” (Clark). Click here to listen to Elsie describe her search before joining the LDS church.
I went through Sweat Lodge, and Native American Church, and Presbyterian Church, and now I’m with LDS church. I was baptized in 1984. That’s where I plan on staying because of the ethics. I guess if I had all of that when I was younger, and was more focused and directed, I would be further than I am today. But, all I can say is that God put us here for a reason, and mine must be this. I don’t have strong financial support, I don’t have retirement, and I don’t have as much life insurance as I’d like to have, but I have my health . . . One thing I don’t do is give up. I guess I learned resilience, and I don’t know how I did that either. It’s just like being on an island with the stormy waters and the alligators and all that ready to get at you, but you still make it. (Clark)
Alcohol and Diabetes
Elsie talked about what a big problem alcohol and diabetes are on the reservation, how they are a problem across the country, but more so with native people. She wondered if it is related to their diet:
Whatever the sugar they have in alcohol . . . Everything, the diet too, is a lot of starch and sugar and salt; their metabolism isn’t . . . Everything used to be natural. Certainly fried bread wasn’t part of it. Then, if they become diabetic, being an alcoholic is more . . . Once you get diabetes it compounds everything else. It affects all your organs at some point in your life. Those that go on dialysis—there are so many restrictions. (Clark)
Before the white man came, corn and buffalo were the main foods of the Omaha (Boughter 14). After the white man scared off or killed all the buffalo (for their hides) and most of the small game, the Omaha began to starve. In 1854, they were moved to their reservation lands in the north, closer to their feared enemies, the Sioux. Constantly fearful of attack and unprotected by their “great white father,” they felt too vulnerable to farm. They became dependent on scarce treaty handouts, stealing cattle, digging roots, and wild peas (Boughter 43)—many starved to death.
Starving in the womb can inculcate an insatiable hunger in the next generation, multiply this by five times, and combine it with the fact that Native metabolism is not genetically programmed for alcohol, sugar, or large amounts of carbohydrates. Additionally, Natives may have a “thrifty gene,” which enabled their ancestors to store fat in certain cells to help them survive through long winters and periods of famine (Fleming 265). Today, with a typical poor American diet heavy in processed foods, carbohydrates, and sugar, is it any wonder that Native people’s incidence of obesity and diabetes is so high?
“I wonder if this cyclical pattern of a struggle with alcohol, both in Elsie’s family and for many Native people—their alcoholism rate is “four times that of the general population” (Fleming 265) — is a result of peer pressure; white expectations of Indian behavior; or a learned response, a way to deal with being at the bottom of the hierarchy of white privilege, with the least access to society’s rewards. Could it be self-medication, a self-destructive way to try to ease the intergenerational trauma that each Native person is born into? Elsie was trying to decipher her personal relationship with alcohol when she said, “The only thing to do is face your pain and throw it away. I think that’s where I’m at, because I had difficulties in my lifetime, and that’s probably why I drank” (Clark). Elsie is proud that she stopped drinking in 1981.
Click here to hear Elsie talk about AIM, Wounded Knee, and their importance to today’s Native activists.
The insidious and devastating effects of alcohol on Indian tribal culture, families, and individual lives have been with us for two centuries. Even the Native American identity reclamation and cultural renewal of the early ‘70s that gave rise to Native activism and AIM is tinged in Elsie’s mind by negativity. Although they had strong voices and believed in what they were doing, and it was a good strategy to draw attention to the Indian’s plight, “behind all of that they had drugs and alcohol” (Clark Nov. 2o10). However, she does appreciate the gains activists made, and the example they have set:
Yeah, we need strong advocates like