Marvin Two TwoMarvin Two Two found his way out of alcoholism
through the Indian Revival Center church in
Los Angeles.

Substance Abuse

"Many immigrants [during the Indian Relocation Program] fell hard against the city. Too many drank themselves to death in the skid row bars known as Indian Alley," says Mark Anthony Rolo in A Seat at the Drum.

Alcohol and drugs are hard facts of life for too many urban and reservation Indians. Native Americans are five times more likely to die of alcohol-related causes than whites, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis — diseases associated with alcoholism — are the sixth leading cause of death among Native Americans. They are not even among the top 10 in whites.

Illegal drugs — marijuana, opiates, cocaine and stimulants — are increasing among Indians, but the drug of choice is still alcohol. One study found that among Indians entering substance abuse treatment programs in the U.S. in 2002, 63 percent were struggling with alcohol compared with only 42 percent for all other admissions.

A religious-based treatment program helped Marvin Two Two recover from alcoholism.

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The drunken Indian is one of those Hollywood stereotypes. Another is the myth of "firewater" — the false assumption that Indians are physically unable to handle alcohol. Several recent medical studies have shown that Native Americans metabolize alcohol as rapidly as non-Indians.

Indian alcoholism is not inevitable.

But generations of poverty, unemployment and historical trauma can make alcohol a powerful escape or coping mechanism.

As both programs in Indian Country Diaries point out, there are Native Americans who are confronting alcoholism head on. In the 1970s, tribes began to talk about alcohol. Many started 12-step programs based on Alcoholics Anonymous with its emphasis on giving control of alcohol over to an individual's higher power.

That religious approach worked for Marvin Two Two when he joined his wife at the Indian Revival Center in Los Angeles.

"I heard a real pleasant voice say, 'Go to church,' and I'm thinking, 'Man I need a beer. I'm having DTs,' " Marvin now laughs. "But I came on in. I come around there and my wife was sitting there and there's an empty seat there. I look up and I know everybody at church. Ken introduced me. He says, 'See all those people? For 20 years we've been praying for you and the Lord has answered our prayers.' " Marvin hasn't had a drink since that day.

But some tribes have found that Christianity may not work for them. The Oglala Sioux tribe's Anpetu Luta Otipi treatment program abandoned their 12-step program in favor of the Lakota inipi, or sweat lodge to aid recovery.

Whatever the specific treatment approach, everyone — even the federal government — understands that the answers to substance abuse must come from within Indian Country. In Spiral of Fire, diabetes program coordinator Patty Grant says, "Indian people are beginning to recognize there's got to be a way that we can begin to change our thinking, spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically, so that we can begin to make those lifestyle changes. for the healing process to take place."

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