Drunken Indian – Fact or Fiction? Native American Drinking

Drunken Indian Study

This study compared the drinking of Native Americans and whites on a number of measures. The goal was to test the truth of the drunken Indian belief.

Two sources of data were used. One was the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It included 171,858 whites and  4,201 Native Americans. The second was the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Included were 1,130,658 whites and  21,589 Native Americans.


The results from the first survey showed that the majority (59.9%) of Native Americans abstained. Only a minority (43.1%) of whites did so. About 14.5% of Native Americans were light/moderate drinkers. That compared to 32.7% of whites. The rates of heavy drinking and of heavy episodic (‘binge’) drinking were almost identical. The results of the second survey were similar.

Thus, Native American and white drinking patterns are similar, except that many more of the former abstain. This evidence provides no support for the drunken Indian stereotype.

A Stereotype

drunken indian
Drunken Indian “humor” perpetuates a harmful stereotype.

The drunken Indian is a stereotype. Although not true, it’s very damaging. Large numbers of Native Americans believe the myth. For them, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.


The stereotype has generated theories to explain it. Belief in these theories helps perpetuate the stereotype. One is that Native people have a genetic problem leading to alcoholism. This leads to a fatalistic attitude: ‘Why fight it if it’s inevitable?’

Another theory is that alcoholism is a cultural trait of Native Americans. It, too, leads to fatalistic thinking and behavior. In reality, there is no such thing as Native American culture. There are many different Native American cultures. And they vary dramatically from each other

The stereotype can be harmful in other ways. Diabetic Native American patients can be misdiagnosed as intoxicated and not receive needed care. Employers may pass over Native applicants because of the stereotype. The list goes on and on. The drunken Indian stereotype harms both Native Americans and the larger society.

Cunningham, J., et al. Alcohol use among Native Americans compared to whites: Examining the veracity of the ‘˜Native American elevated alcohol consumption’ belief. Drug Alc Depend., 2016, 160, 65-75.