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Alcohol and the Indian-White relationship: the function of Alcoholics Anonymous in Coast Salish society Jilek-Aall, Louise Mathilde


This paper aims at demonstrating the close association of Indian alcohol abuse with the Indian-White relationship as it has developed throughout the contact period. The author became aware of this association in the course of her study of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) among the Coast Salish Indians. In contrast to the situation obtaining among the Coast Salish Indians, lack of interest in A.A. is reported for most Indian groups of North America. The author reviews Coast Salish culture traits with regard to their relevance to the socio-cultural problems of the Indian population today, and explores the relationship between patterns of alcohol use and abuse and Westernization. Alcohol abuse among British Columbia Indians has become a major factor in social, physical, and mental pathology according to statistical evidence, and it is in this context that the function of A.A. and its efficacy in combating alcoholism is investigated. Alcoholics Anonymous maintains that all members are equal, regardless of racial, ethnic or religious background. But Indians with alcohol problems find it difficult to speak openly among non-Indians in A.A. Alleged or real discriminations led to the formation of Indian A.A. groups among the Coast Salish some ten years ago, and participation in them has been steadily growing. Patterns of traditional social structure and behaviour are reflected in the way the Coast Salish conduct their A.A. meetings, and this clearly sets their groups apart from other A.A. organizations. Indian A.A. meetings are important social events on the reserve; sometimes they take the form of a family court, the participants having to justify their behaviour towards kinsmen in front of the whole A.A. group. Considerable discussion is devoted to Indian-White relations, a fact which demonstrates the importance of this conflict area to Indians with alcohol problems. There is a strong emphasis on rebirth through A.A. The "power greater than ourselves" in the A.A. programme is to the local Indian member a syncretic amalgamation of the Christian God with the spirit power of the Salish winter ceremonials. Many Indian A.A. members also attend the revived spirit dances, and the same building is used for both purposes on a local reserve. The author discusses the social movement-aspects of Indian A.A. and the possibility of its development into a nativistic movement. Abstinence from alcohol has been extolled by many religious movements among North American Indians such as the Handsome Lake Religion, the Ghost Dance, the Indian Shaker Church, and the Peyote Cult, which are described in the context of Indian efforts to combat alcoholism. The inefficiency of purely Western methods of helping Indians with alcohol problems is the basis of the author's conclusion that any assistance rendered by Western agencies, in order to be effective, must rely on Indian initiatives and actively involve the local Indian population. Only anti-alcoholic programmes integrating Indian A.A. groups with Indian community centres and professional consultation services in an organized effort, will have a chance to meet with success.

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