Indian Problems: Shrinks, Lies, and Justice

There is no doubt that alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behaviors are major problems among modern Indians. Is this a medical issue that will be solved by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers? Or is this a political issue that can be solved only by ending the oppression of Indians? There are of course many healthy and happy Indians, and they are used by the dominant culture as evidence that oppression is not related to self-destructive behaviors, but that is as silly as pointing to veterans who have survived war as evidence that war is not related to death.

I am a clinical psychologist who is not only ashamed of America’s historic oppression of Indians but who is also ashamed of the mental health profession. Blaming biochemistry or genetics for self-destructive behaviors has been a lucrative lie for drug companies and the rest of the mental health industry; it has also diverted the dominant culture from examining a dehumanizing society.

Today, Indians will tell you that they know plenty of crazy or insane folks among them, but was this always the case? The 1916 book The Institutional Care of the Insane of the United States and Canada reports: “Dr. Lillybridge of Virginia, who was employed by the government to superintend the removal of Cherokee Indians in 1827-8-9, and who saw more than 20,000 Indians and inquired much about their diseases, informs us he never saw or heard of a case of insanity among them.” Over the last two centuries, virtually all anthropological and epidemiological studies have shown a strong relationship between extended contact with European-American civilization and insanity or schizophrenia.

Similarly, alcohol and drug abuse is most severe in traditional cultures which have been decimated by Western Civilization. One of the most widely used arguments for the genetic view of alcohol abuse is the “Oriental flush”: the reddening after drinking that frequently characterizes those with Asian ancestry, including Indians. But individuals from Asian backgrounds who flush do not necessarily have more drinking problems than those who don’t. “Flushing groups” have both the highest rates of alcoholism (e.g., Indians) and the lowest rates (e.g., Chinese). Rather than looking towards the biochemical and genetic, the answer is obvious to social psychologist Stanton Peele, author of Diseasing of America: “It would certainly seem that Eskimos’ and Indians’ abnegated state in America and their isolation from the American economic and achievement-oriented system inflate their alcoholism rates.”

I believe the dominant culture is receiving a certain kind of justice for both its lies and its oppression of Indians. For stolen land and genocidal practices, Indians have certainly not received political, legal, or economic justice. However, there is a justice being meted out for forcing Indians into become something they are not. Because of its denial and its failure to make amends for the violence of coercion, the dominant culture’s karma is to repeat this with its own children. Increasingly, the dominant culture’s “different” children, stubborn, bored, and shy kids (considered perfectly healthy in traditional cultures), are diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit disorder, and social anxiety disorder — and drugged into conformity.

The dominant culture’s karma for ignoring the resentment of Indians for forced conformity is that it now ignores its own children’s resentment over similar >coercion. And the dominant culture’s justice is a death sentence. Its very >roots — family relationships — are being destroyed by its children’s resentment, which acts on the dominant culture like a slow-killing poison.

Bruce E. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of Commonsense Rebellion: Taking Back Your Life from Drugs, Shrinks, Corporations, and a World Gone Crazy.