Maintaining Abstinence in a Northern Plains Tribe

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Abstract

In this article, we examine how American Indian individuals with a history of alcohol dependence have been able to maintain their abstinence despite strong pressures to return to drinking. This work builds on close collaboration with individual tribal members who have resolved their problems with alcohol and community-based service providers to develop open-ended qualitative interviews. Using these, we explored how former drinkers respond to the twin challenges raised by their former drinking associates and strong feelings that emerge when alcohol is no longer an option for coping with life’s difficulties. The resolution of these challenges is central to abstinence, given the strong ties between drinking and sociality in some American Indian communities (including the one where this study was conducted) and underscores the ways in which alternate relations to alcohol can be established even within a heavy drinking cultural context. Interviews were conducted with 133 individuals from a northern plains tribe who were identified in a previous epidemiological study as having a lifetime history of alcohol dependence. Inquiry into the processes involved in the meaningful constitution of abstinence for these men and women highlights the role of religion and spirituality for some, but by no means all of these individuals and, more broadly, the emergence of what Bea Medicine has characterized as “new ways of coping,” which force us to expand on leading conceptualizations of coping in the literature on problems with alcohol.