Substance abuse, be it alcohol, drugs, or tobacco is a serious problem in almost every neighborhood, community, town, city, or state in the United States and all across the globe. The types of drugs and the environments may change, but the outcome is always the same; addiction usually, leads to or stems from economic instability and poor decision making, which goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse. People across all demographics are affected by substance abuse in this modern age. People from all walks of life, different races, ages, genders, and religious backgrounds, all can be affected by substance abuse. This is usually due their own use and experience or as the friend or family of someone who abuses drugs or alcohol. The Native American tribal communities living the United States are suffering and have suffered due to issues of substance abuse for a long time and the prevalence only continues to rise. One of the Native American Tribal communities most affected by substance abuse issues is the Navajo people. In order to effect real change and help to decrease the prevalence of substance abuse within the Navajo Nation it is necessary to review the causes, the side-effects, and other contributing factors to the problem.
The Navajo, who call themselves the Dine, which means “the people,” can trace their origins to the Pre-Colombian era, if not before. The Navajo are primarily a pastoral people that live in many different bands within the larger tribe. The land of the Navajo was once vast and, even, today is one of the largest spanning reservation lands in the United States. (Navajo People Organization, 2011). The Navajo nation spread across parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona totaling 27,000 mile. Two of these locations, Dine Bikeyah and Navajoland, which together are larger than 10 of the existing fifty states (Navajo Nation Government, 2011). The Navajo, like many of the native peoples, are incredibly spiritual people with many unique practice, traditions, and rituals. The Navajo have a fascinating history and culture. Their beliefs include a story of the origins from the bowels of the Earth, an active divine philosophy, and many progressive perspectives of society and gender roles, even by today’s standards.
Part of the Navajo traditions includes both the medicinal use of marijuana and ceremonial use of peyote, source of the hallucinogen Mescaline. The former today is being used medicinally by many Americans, and the former is illegal outside of the reservation borders (Horgan & Tzar, 2003). However, while certain substances are essential to their Navajo belief system, there are many other substances being abused that are as illicit; capable of negatively affecting users, their friend and family, and the community as a whole. Two of the most serious substances to be causing the larger problems on Navajo reservations are alcohol and Methamphetamines, or less formally called “Speed.” Despite the prevalence today, the Navajo people, nor any of the other native peoples, distilled, brewed, or fermented alcohol for human consumption. Alcohol was introduced to the Navajo by the white colonists and settlers. Native Americans did not any experience with alcohol, therefore, their ability to metabolize the beverages was lower and it was able to more strongly influence their behavior and they easily became addicted to it (Gerard, 2005). When that reality was recognized by military and governmental agencies, they used it to their advantage. They would often use that addiction and dependence to their advantage when dealing with the Native Americans. One chief of the Oneida Tribe in 1800 warned that the Native peoples should, “Drink no firewater of the white man. It makes you mice for the white men who are cats. Many a meal they have eaten of you” (Bishop, 2011). Unfortunately, that warning did not save the native peoples from being pushed from their homelands onto reservations, where most are living still today.
Throughout the years there are many stereotypes that have been perpetuated based on the extreme substance abuse problems. Alcoholism became the definition of the Native American; “the Drunken Indian.” Substance abuse on Navajo lands is literally running rampant throughout their communities. The current statistics are shocking. In 2001, 1 in 10 Navajo was regularly using illegal drugs, today that ratio has increased to 1 in 4. According to one study, it was determined that 90% of the Navajo who are serving jail sentences was due to drug or alcohol related crimes. The age when drug experimentation begins is much younger. Many junior high school students are regularly, smoking, drinking alcohol, and are recreationally using drugs; this is as high 75% in certain communities (Navajo County Coalition Against Drug Abuse, 2011).
Again, alcohol is and has been one of the greatest contributors to the substance abuse issues within the Navajo lands, and within every other tribal group living within the United States border. Sadly, this issue has been perpetuating into epidemic proportion since the late 18th century. Alcohol abuse is known to be a rampant problem among Native Indians, one that has since led to the emergence of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), fetal alcohol effect (FAE), and the like (French, 2004). Given the highly difficult treatment record of Native Americans arising from psychocultural marginality, a phenomenon that arises from contravening policies against them, it has become important for measures to address the problem of alcoholism among them through fostering positive awareness of their cultural ethnic identity. In other words, alcoholism, being a problem that is somewhat endemic among Native Americans, have to be addressed down from its root causes through applying measures that are highly conscious of their culture. Indeed, part of the current downsides of the status quo on alcoholism among Native Indians is the fact that law enforcement officials use incarceration more than treatment on them, which actually leads them to become more belligerent without actually having their problems on alcoholism solved (French, 2004).
However, today, neither alcohol and cigarettes nor marijuana and peyote, is where the highest impact of substance abuse stems. Methamphetamines, also called meth or Speed, is an incredibly addictive, lucrative, and popular drug found on Navajo communities (Bishop, 2011). Currently 53% of all drug related cases are related specifically to Methamphetamine use. Speed use is the number one cause of child neglect cases on reservation lands, has led to a vast increase in crime on reservation lands, and finally, it is reaching younger and younger users. According to one study, focusing on communities in Arizona, 43% of youth drug problems are methamphetamine related (Navajo County Coalition Against Drug Abuse). Methamphetamine use is prone to causing varying mood swings and energy levels; the users are also unpredictable. This can make the users erratic and potentially dangerous, easily swayed into poor judgment, and reckless behaviors. These behaviors can include health and hygiene related issues. Many substance abusers expose themselves to unprotected sexual practices and unsafe drug use. These actions can increases the percentage of HIV/AIDS and STD statistics to become unnecessarily higher than they need to be. All of these issues are entirely possible to change, it is just a matter of finding the right initiatives to impact the problem in the most efficient and effective ways (Gerard, 2011).
While substance abuse itself, in general, is unhealthy and unwise, not all of the side-effects of drug abuse focus on the person abusing the substance, but on those who care for them. Children within the Navajo communities are being raised around this level of rampant drug use. This exposure increases the likelihood to experiment with drugs at younger and younger ages, they are often most likely to be neglected and abused by addicted family members (Bishop, 2011). That said why is not more being done to curb the problem? Sadly, substance abuse is an incredibly multilayered and complex issue. For that reason, there is never going to be a “one-size-fits-all” solution to eliminating the problem of substance abuse from the Navajo lands. Fortunately, there are a number of new programs, organization, and groups who are dedicated to changing the prevalence of substance abuse among the native peoples, including the Navajo. The Navajo Nation Department of Behavioral Health Corrections Project was initially founded in 1983 to address the needs of Native Americans who were incarcerated. Today they also work to limit drug use or repetitive drug use once the inmates leave the prison environments (Barton, L., Watchman & Foster 2008). It has not been until the late 1990s that social organization and government agencies began to recognize the seriousness of the substance abuse problems on Navajo lands.
A study by Mignon and Holmes (2013) further emphasized the phenomenon of substance abuse among Native Americans, specifically those who were placed under the care of their grandparents. Around 36% of families where grandparents raise children were found to have members who are suffering from alcohol and/or drug addiction – a startling finding that Mignon and Holmes (2013) highlighted in their investigation. Findings specify that the reason behind such a large number attribute to the core reasons that explain why grandparents, not parents, are tasked to take care of children in the first place. Apart from the fact that the parents of Native American children themselves are facing problems with regard to alcoholism and drug abuse, particularly due to psychocultural marginality as asserted by French (2004), it is also notable that grandparents themselves actually have problems with regard to coping up with the challenge they hold. Native American grandparents raising children, according to Mignon and Holmes (2013), have little to no assistance coming from the state, their relatives and other people.
The cycle of substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, and low physical health, due to disease and conditions continues. However, all of these contributors perpetuate a vicious cycle that has continued too long within the Navajo lands. The less strict reservation laws established and enforced by the tribal government of the given reservation, made identifying, apprehending, and penalizing illegal drug use and drug related crime very difficult. However, modern laws are being adapted that will allow the tribal lands and the United States law enforcement to work together to stem the tide on the availability of illegal substances, like methamphetamines. As of yet, these programs are in their fledgling stages and as yet achieved the charitable funds to effect change on a large scale, but it is a beginning. It seems appropriate that the United States offer all the help necessary to the Navajo, and all other native communities. Historically speaking, much of the problem can be traced to the arrival of the European colonist and settlers hundreds of years ago.
We live in an era where we have the knowledge and the means to address the substance abuse issues of the Navajo. It is essential that serious consideration, time and energy be spent to properly and fully meet the needs of eliminating the prevalence of rampant substance abuse on Navajo lands. The Native American peoples of this country have suffered a great deal at the hands of our 200 year; from bigotry, mistreatment of their ancestors, and their loss of homelands and forced relocation onto reservations by the American government. Substance abuse is contributing to elevated health problems, criminal activity, and a breakdown of families and the abuse and neglect of children. Continuing the research and finding the means to change the statistics and improve the quality of life of all of those most harshly affected by substance abuse in Navajo lands is necessary. Working to prevent its prevalence in the future is worthwhile. The tide can be turned with diligence, commitment, and realistic and feasible programs and endeavors.
Barton, L., Watchman, E., & Foster, L. (2008). Navajo Corrections Project. Navajo Nation Department of Behavioral Health Services:, 1-44. Retrieved from http://www.tribalreentry.org/sites/tribalreentry.org/files/Presentatiom4NDPS-WarriorSpirit 04 18 08.pdf
Bishop, M. (2011). American Indian heritage month: Commemoration vs. exploitation. ABC Clio, 1. Retrieved from http://www.historyandtheheadlines.abc-clio.com/ContentPages/ContentPage.aspx?entryId=1171629¤tSection=1161468
French, L. (2004). Alcohol and other drug addictions among Native Americans. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 22 (1), 81-91.
Gerard, L. (2005). Prevention & treatment of substance abuse in Native American communities. Arizona Department of Health Services: Phoenix IHS Area Health Summit
Horgan, J. & Tzar, L. (2003). Peyote on the brain. Discover Magazine, 1. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2003/feb/featpeyote/
Mignon, S., and Holmes, W. (2013). Substance abuse and mental health issues within Native American grandparenting families. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 12 (3), 210-227.
Navajo County Coalition against Drug Abuse. (2011). Navajo county drug project. Navajo County Drug Project, 1-4.
Navajo Nation Government. (2011). History. Retrieved from http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/history.htm
Navajo People Organization. (2011). Navajo history. Retrieved from http://navajopeople.org/navajo-history.htm