The poison grows next to its cure: Life history, substance abuse, ritual, and self-transformation on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation

John Burnett Bing
Dept. of Anthropology, Emory University
July, 2006


This dissertation provides an ethnographic description of alcohol abuse and recovery on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation (Montana, USA). The subject of "Indian drinking" is discussed, and a brief history of Cheyenne alcohol use is provided. The contemporary reservation context is then described. Cheyenne economics, politics, and ethnic identity frame a description of Cheyenne drinking and drug use. Substance abuse is then related to Cheyenne developmental expectations. Cheyennes view drunken comportment through a culturally specific conception of "craziness." Some "crazy" behavior is expected of young Cheyenne adults, especially young men. This pattern is related to the Cheyenne value of "warriorhood". Drinking and drug use are thus viewed as a rite of passage into early adulthood. Recovery is likewise described as a developmental transition into middle-age. Sober Cheyenne comportment is described, including Cheyenne behavioral non-intervention and joking behavior. Reservation treatment modalities are described, and emphasis is placed on the role of the sweat lodge in Cheyenne recovery. Native American Church (peyote) and Alcoholics Anonymous are also discussed. Social, psychological, and cosmological differences between these traditions are presented, and conflict between them described. The mutual cultural critique between followers of AA and practitioners of Cheyenne ritual healing serves to throw into relief the complex relationships between alcohol abuse, recovery, and ethnic identity. The different contemporary cultural permutations of sobriety are used as a window through which to view Cheyenne culture change and the reproduction of Cheyenne society. The dissertation explores the implications of this ethnography for the culturally appropriate treatment of individual Cheyennes.