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 (NA). The second was the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Included were 1,130,658 whites (W) and 21,589 NA.


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

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

A Stereotype

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

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

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 NA. It, too, leads to fatalistic thinking and behavior. In reality, there is no such thing as NA culture. There are many different NA cultures. And they vary greatly from each other

The stereotype can be harmful in other ways. Diabetic NA patients can be misdiagnosed as intoxicated. As result, 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 NA and the larger society.


Cunningham, J., et al. Alcohol use among Native Americans compared to whites. Drug Alc Depend., 160, 65-75.


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