Facing Alcoholism:

The Socioeconomic Survival of the Cheyenne River Sioux


  • Belinda Floyd
  • Monique Madison
  • Lisa Meador
  • Cheryl Nelson
  • April Oldenburg
  • Michael F. Schadone
  • Caprise Snyder
  • Melissa Torrey
  • Carlos Vargas


Alcoholism is an individual and social disease that affects people all over the world. It has varying degrees of severity based on the amount and length of consumption. There are risks associated with the use of alcohol that vary from social consequences to physical health risks (World Health Organization [WHO], 2010). Alcoholism has been linked to various acts of crime more often than illicit drugs (Lovekin, 2002). The causes of alcoholism vary, and include poverty, use as an escape mechanism, genetics, and societal pressure. Some people choose to use alcohol because of pressure from family and friends, and some just want to experiment. There are also some that just want to get away from painful emotions (Medicine.Net, Inc., 2010). Poverty is also often cited as a leading cause of alcoholism (Cedra, 2010).

Because of their ability to negatively impact those around them, those addicted to alcohol should not be ignored but rather, to be socially responsible, we must recognize the fact that their illness needs to be treated as a disease . World wide alcohol is related to the cause of 2.3 million pre-mature deaths, and is the 5th leading cause of premature disability and death. It is also the causative factor in over 4 percent of the worlds burden of disease (WHO, 2010).

Very few communities are immune to the problem of alcoholism and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is no exception. Many tragedies have occurred from their alcohol addiction, including homicide, suicide, motor vehicle fatalities, and increased violence (Shepard, 2007). We will explore the causes and effects of alcoholism and its impact on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. We will then make recommendations, and propose solutions to minimize the occurrence and negative effects of alcoholism in the community.

The Situation Today

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is a Native American tribe located in South Dakota. They have a history thousands of years old, and great pride in the traditions of the community. They honor Mother Nature and the land that they live on, which has been a part of their culture from its beginnings. Like most Native American tribes they have had their ways of life tested by the world around them, and have uncountable injustices thrust upon them (Milbrodt, 2002; Swenson, 1994; White, 1978). The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has built a history and a homeland that they would like to preserve long into the future. While they fight to keep traditions alive and remain solid as a culture they also fight the modern difficulties that ensue (French & Hornbukle, 1980; Mizrach, 1999).

According to a report by the Department of Interior, Ziebach County, which is home to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, has a poverty rate of 54% (as cited in Ortman, 2010). The jobless rate among tribal members is 88% (Ortman, 2010). This tribe, like many others, is plagued by “alcoholism, suicide, crime and a sense of abandonment” (Ortman, 2010). This area was also hit by devastating storms during the past winter. The Chairman of the tribe, Joe Brings Plenty, questions why it must take a disaster of this magnitude to get the attention of a government that he feels has “broken its treaty obligations to care for Indians who gave up their land to make way for white settlers” (Ortman, 2010, para. 3) . It is our aim to investigate conditions and issues that surround this tribe. These very conditions and issues may well be at the root of the high rate of alcoholism among the members of this tribe. Alcoholism is a large social problem in the tribe, and finding ways to alleviate and educate members is an important need. Alcoholism is not a singular disease; it affects the culture and traditions as a whole (French & Hornbukle, 1980). It can compromise the future success of a person and the group they belong to (A.D.A.M. Inc, 2009).

It will be our goal to determine what conditions led to the alcoholism problem now experienced by the tribe, and what information, help, and programs are available, and to build upon that knowledge to provide whatever assistance we can with the disease of alcoholism in the tribe.


Poverty is both the cause and consequence of many of the problems that Native American communities face, like alcohol addiction. It is a vicious cycle which the current economic climate only makes worse. The standard response to poverty is economic development. However, poverty in Native American communities cannot be separated from its historical context. Native Americans live in places chosen for them by the American government, the result of an invasion designed to take over their lands. The Cheyenne Sioux Tribe website refers to the creation of the American West as we know it “after most Native American peoples were ‘safely confined’ on reservations” (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, 2009, para. 1). In time that overt hostility has turned into neglect, while poverty has become severely entrenched. Contrary to popular belief, most tribes are not wealthy from gaming.

While history may be a root cause of poverty in Native American communities, we are powerless to change history. We can only address the present and future, while acknowledging the past. Therefore, the development solutions that we recommend acknowledge the unique traditions and history of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. In Development as Freedom, economist Amartya Sen (2000) talks about freedom as an end and a way to create development. In this context, freedom is more than being free of negative circumstances, like freedom from oppression. Also critical to his notion of development, is the development of capabilities within individuals and communities – the freedom to do. In this case, our recommendation is based on economic development that permits the Sioux the freedom to live consistently within their beliefs and traditions.

Connection to the land is essential to Native American thought (Rodgers, n.d.). Creating economic development opportunities that are consistent with this connection allows the Sioux to live a holistic life, break out of the cycle of poverty and escape some of the pressures that lead to alcoholism. We recommend an initiative to support Sioux businesses that uphold traditional principles, such as the creation of a line of organic food products, the manufacture of biodegradable packaging or the marketing of solar energy. Also critical to the success of this effort would be encouraging education in relevant fields, and the establishment of high wage jobs that persuade young people to stay on the reservation.


When people talk about escaping from things that are going on in their lives, there’s only so far that they can get away from those things or problems. That is, people can physically remove themselves from a stressful area, like a home fraught with arguing family members, but they cannot physically remove the memories of those arguments from their mind. Many experiences make people want to escape or run away from or forget about those experiences, and there are a variety of ways that people attempt to do this. Those methods of escape can be both positive and negative; some people meditate to relieve stress, while others exercise. Unfortunately, one of the most common, yet severely negative escape routes involves the use and abuse of alcohol. Because of its effects on the person consuming the alcohol, such as lowered inhibitions and the euphoric effect which can seem to alleviate stress and worry, alcohol often succeeds in providing an escape that some people look for, but only temporarily. Afterwards, however, the stress and worry can return, propelling the user to consume more alcohol to prolong the escape, which often progresses alcohol use to alcohol abuse.

Native American communities are beset with a multitude of problems, which include poverty, racism and discrimination, high rates of unemployment, issues maintaining their ethnic identity in a country with a different dominant culture, depression, and suicide (Martins, Widoe, Porter, Chebon, & McNeil, 2006). While the aforementioned social problems do not constitute an exhaustive list of problems faced by many Native Americans, they certainly provide insight into the kinds of problems that some Native Americans may attempt to escape from when using or abusing alcohol. With poverty topping the list of social conditions that plague Native American communities, it is not surprising that between 2005 and 2008 36% of Native Americans aged 18 or older living in poverty binged on alcohol compared to the national average of 25% (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, 2010). Unfortunately, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is not immune to these social problems.

Attempting to reduce the high rate of alcohol abuse as a means of escape within the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, requires one to tackle the problems that the members of this community are seemingly attempting to escape from. Poverty, unemployment, and discrimination seem like insurmountable obstacles to overcome when trying to eradicate those social conditions that tend to lead to alcohol abuse as a means of escape or relief from stress and worry. With the current U.S. economy being unstable, poverty and unemployment have stricken several U.S. communities, not just Native Americans. With that said, solutions like creating jobs and improving the economy will take years for the positive effects to be felt. While this is a long-term goal, which will prove to eradicate poverty, alternative means of combating this problem are available, and may produce good results that are not contingent upon something that is out of the individual’s control, such as the economy. Promoting Alcoholics Anonymous programs, psychological counseling, and group therapy are some options for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes. The concern, however, is whether these solutions, typical of the dominant American culture, will be accepted or rejected by a community, which strives hard to maintain its separate and historical identity. Certainly, culture and tradition will have to play a role.


The disease of alcoholism can begin for many reasons (A.D.A.M. Inc., 2009). Factors range from genetics, poverty, familial and family patterns, and pressure from outside sources, such as peer pressure. In this section we will look at the link between outside pressure, and alcoholism in the Native American.

A person’s environment can have a dramatic link to the cause of alcoholism (A.D.A.M. Inc., 2009). A child may grow up with alcohol around them and see family members drinking and it may become familial (Milbrodt, 2002). A child may feel like it is a normal thing that adults do, and grow up emulating that family picture. It can make a child more prone to becoming an alcoholic later in life, because they have not been exposed to something different, and the peer pressure is harder to ignore. As a child growing up around the over- consumption of alcohol, it becomes harder to ignore peer pressure as they get older, even if it is something they have seen as a negative family pattern (Milbrodt, 2002). A article in the Journal of American Indian Education, linked peer pressure, alcoholism and family structure to illustrate the problem.

They are products of a society where alcohol abuse is not considered deviant behavior […] where poverty is the norm, where teenage pregnancy is sanctioned, where parents and relatives are often in trouble with the law, and where peer pressure takes the form of family pressures as well. (Bowker, 1992, “Results of the study” para. 5)

Although the causes of alcoholism are complex, there is a great deal of research determining how societal and peer pressure develop into such a damaging condition (A.D.A.M. Inc., 2009). Many of the factors that cause a dependence on alcohol include anger and dissatisfaction in life, unrelieved stress, and emotional difficulties, as well as social and peer pressure (A.D.A.M. Inc., 2009). Some people choose to use alcohol because of social factors such as pressure from their family, and others may feel peer pressure from their friends. Parents and family members may not realize the damage that alcohol can do, and how it can affect their family relations. Sometimes family has the power to make people feel the need for alcohol. Sometimes family members tend to criticize their own family members, which may lead the person to drinking. Sometimes consistent arguments, as well as influence from friends may lead to heavy drinking. The factors are numerous, but in the arena of stimulus from an outside source, the causes stem from pressure around the person deciding to drink.

Alcoholism is a serious problem. It is the leading cause of unintentional deaths (French & Hornbuckle, 1908). Children are affected by the alcoholic parent’s behavior. Sometimes this may lead to child abuse or child negligence (ChildAbuse.com, 2010). Family members of alcoholics often feel embarrassment, sadness and fear of their love one (Parsons, 2003). Children of alcoholic parents struggle with depression and confusion, often not knowing if their loved one is somewhere hurt (Parsons, 2003). There are times that family members become fearful of their love ones. Alcoholics may become violent to their family members. Children sometimes blame themselves for their parent’s drinking (Parsons, 2003).

Anxiety of Identity

In a historical overview of Native Americans it can be seen that loss of cultural identity, leading to low self esteem and identity anxiety, is a contributing factor in the high rates of alcoholism among this culture (French & Hornbuckle, 1980). Teresa Milbrodt (2002) writes that “Native Americans have been put at high risk for alcoholism due to a history that they cannot forget” (p. 7). She shows that the Lakota people have suffered a loss of culture through abuses of Native Americans by white settlers and governmental policies spanning hundreds of years. Current conditions are a result of past events that have created a breakdown of the traditional structure of the tribe. Changes such as federally run boarding schools that the children were required to attend, changes in the traditional gender roles, and shifts in family traditions have left the tribe culturally adrift.

Many of the students who were sent to these federal boarding schools returned to the reservations feeling ashamed of their cultural heritage. They then migrated to urban areas where they felt equally out of place. In their eyes they “had no place in any society” (Milbrodt, 2002, p. 8).

Gender roles also underwent severe changes when the Native Americans were forced onto reservations. Men were no longer able to hunt, and the government even tried to outlaw spiritual practices such as ceremonies, dances and warrior societies. Men felt unable to provide for their families. The hunt and the ceremonies also determined a man’s status within the tribe. Again, the changes in tribal structure left members feeling unsure of their place in society. Confined to the reservations, men “lost their status and cultural identity” (Milbrodt, 2002, p. 10).

Government policies also effected the family traditions. Policies were implemented to restrict travel and tribal members were unable to visit family and friends, which was an important way of keeping traditional stories and history alive, as well as reinforcing kinship identity. These family traditions provided an important support system. Tribal members note that when the family system is not strong enough, members do not get the support they need; “with the loss of family came the loss of the identity” (Milbrodt, 2002, p. 12).

History has, through the destruction of the social system, led to a lack of identity within the Lakota culture. It has been noted that “this loss of cultural identity is also one of the major contributions to the high rates of alcoholism on reservations” (Milbrodt, 2002, p. 14).

Underlying Issues

Alcoholism and related disorders are directly impacted by socioeconomic status, educational level and rates of unemployment (Shiraev & Levy, 2010). The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is an impoverished reservation in Zwiebach and Dewey Counties in South Dakota. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that Zwiebach’s poverty rate in 2008 was 54%, while the rate for Dewey was slightly lower at 38% (as cited in Ortman, 2010). The are many possible factors that contribute to this high rate of poverty.

The unemployment rate is extremely high at 88% (as cited in Ortman, 2010). Jobs are scarce in these counties, which are located some distance from urban areas. The infrastructure, the water and electrical systems, throughout the reservation are outdated and failing. This limits new growth, and therefore also limits new job opportunities. This infrastructure has been further impacted by the severe storms of the past winter, leaving the community even more distressed. Unlike many other reservations the reservation does not offer gambling, which provides many job opportunities for other reservations (Ortman, 2010).

According to Education Officials the extreme poverty of the reservations is impacting student success. The graduation rate among Indian students is only about 30%, as compared to the overall graduation rate throughout South Dakota of 75%. This is attributed to the poor physical condition of schools. Also of concern is the lack of qualified teachers, as well as outdated texts and limited supplies (Brokaw, 2010).

While all of these may be contributing factors in the issue of alcoholism, it is also important to look at the correlation aspect of this cycle. It is hard to determine which factor is causing which. Alcoholism is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Does the poverty rate lead to alcoholism or does the alcohol rate contribute to the poverty level? Black Elk (2010), of the Oglala Lakota, describes the values of the Lakota nation as a circle:

You have always noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round…The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so is everything where power moves. (p. 6)

The cycle of poverty and alcoholism is one which we would like to help break.

Solution Proposal

According to Martins et al. (2006), “Native Americans have endured social, racial, and economic oppression but have persevered despite these struggles” (para. 39). Native Americans have experienced discrimination, oppression, disease, enslavement, and war, since the first European settlers arrived in North America. The negative treatment that Native Americans have been exposed to has created negative psychological effects that tend to be transmitted across generations, which creates a stronger cultural bond but promotes isolationist attitudes towards the majority culture, causing separation and marginalization. Co-opting the stresses of previous generations when they themselves are faced with oppression or marginalization, Native Americans, because of their unique cultural history, may suffer a form of intergenerational post-traumatic stress disorder. Some, however, are able to succeed in assimilation and integration, but this outcome requires effort and energy to maintain the acculturation. Native American youth who leave home to attend college tend to exhibit generalized anxiety, more so than those youths who attend college closer to home. This may be a manifestation of anxiety of identity when relating to the majority culture (Allen, 1973; Bowker, 1992; Martins et al., 2006, Milbrodt, 2002).

Native Americans are prone to certain health problems more than are other segments of the population. For example, there are high rates of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and alcoholism among Native Americans. The rate of type 2 diabetes is four times the national average for American Indian elders, affecting one in five. Consistent with the general population, however, heart disease is the leading cause of death for Native Americans. In comparison to that of other racial and ethnic groups, the life expectancy of Native Americans is appreciably lower. According to the work of Everett Rhoades, reasons for this discrepancy may include poverty, greater risk of interpersonal violence, increased abuse of substances, vehicular accidents, and greater rates of disease (e.g. diabetes). (Martins et al., 2006, para. 19)

Native Americans share several mental health risks due to common sociocultural factors, such as poverty, poor health care access, and the isolation and lack of opportunity felt living on some of the reservations (Han et al., 1994; Martins et al., 2006, Milbrodt, 2002). The most common mental disorder among both children and adult Native Americans is depression, raising the risk of suicide tremendously, especially with concomitant substance abuse (French & Hornbuckle, 1980; Martins et al., 2006; Milbrodt, 2002; Ogden, Specter, & Hill, 1970).

Although the strong cultural and ethnic identity shared by Native Americans may contribute to stress and depression, participation in cultural and ceremonial activities may prove to be protective against the same stress and depression (Martins et al., 2006). Additionally, Martins et al. (2006) describes how the strong family emphasis that many Native Americans value may prove protective against psychological distress.

Substance abuse may also be combated with traditional cultural treatments, such as sweat lodges, the Red Road, and the Recovery Medicine Wheel (a 16-step program that utilizes a culturally important facet of circular attribution rather than linear progression; Martins et al., 2006). However, it is important to note that the problem is not entirely socioeconomic. According to growing genetic research, Native Americans are known to posses certain genetic variations that raise their risk of alcohol dependency (Edenburg et al., 2006; Ehlers, 2010; Mulligan et al., 2003; Spillane & Smith, 2007; Wall, Carr, & Ehlers, 2003; Wall, Garcia-Andrade, Thomasson, Carr & Ehlers, 1997). This fact may be detrimental to any substance abuse counseling if neither the counselor nor the patient understand the ramifications.

Economically, Vinje (1996) finds that although, focusing on governmental and private employment rates and promoting natural resource management and manufacturing typically fall short of economic goals, education is a sustainable mainstay requirement for reducing poverty levels. Gaming is certainly a viable option (Feinstein, 1994; Pommersheim, 1984), but as Vinje points out, it frequently “falls short in its objective” (p.427). Expandinging the economy should certainly remain a high priority goal as it will not only create a more comfortable life for those living on the reservation, but it will also decrease the psychological burdens to allow more happiness in their lives (Pickering, 2000; Pommersheim, 1984; Vinje, 1996).


The Sioux are a great people with a rich culture and expansive history. Unfortunately, some of the reservations, specifically the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, find themselves battling elevated incidences of alcoholism, interpersonal violence, depression, and suicide. We feel that there is no singularity in this problem, and the focus and solution need to be comprehensive in order to be effective.

The Sioux tend to be marginalized, which is a lasting symptom of the intolerances and mistreatment that have been thrust upon them since the European settlement of North America. As the Sioux have been relegated to reservations of land that the United States government felt were of little use to the nation, it is understandable that the Sioux had a difficult time finding economic value in the land that was kept separate from the majority European culture. This, in addition to the misguided attempts at forcing the Sioux into acculturation, has continued to marginalize the Native American tribe to a point where a negative psychology is so pervading as to be transmitted from generation to generation. Depression is now prevalent throughout the Sioux tribe.

In order to provide an escape from the daily strife of a poor economy and lower sense of self, some may feel the need to turn to mind-altering substances. This reliance on drugs and alcohol may provide the psychological relief sought, but it does nothing to better the community and increases the incidences of violence, whether aimed at others or self-directed. Additionally, recent findings have suggested that Native Americans have a predisposition, genetically, to alcoholism. The addiction of alcohol in the company of mental distress usually leads to a singular conclusion: suicide.

As stated, the Sioux have a rich cultural history, and should rely on their knowledge of nature and the traditional values to create comprehensive programs which address these issues holistically (i.e. involving the whole person and their community). These programs, however, should not focus on preventing negative issues so much as they should promote a reacceptance of the traditional values, leading to a maximal appreciation of the life skills required to reinvest themselves in their community. The Sioux concept of family is one that promotes health and stability by encouraging a reliance on not only the community but themselves as well.

With more of the community involved in creating a better life on the reservation, there is a better chance of individual members creating their own personal economies, which in turn will better the economy of the reservation and other reservations surrounding them.

The answer is circular.


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