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Report: 12 percent of American Indian deaths alcohol-related

In the first-ever national survey of its kind, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that almost 12 percent of the deaths among American Indians are alcohol-related -- more than three times the rate in the general U.S. population.

The CDC report, released Thursday, also found that the greatest number of alcohol-related deaths among Indians occurred in the Indian Health Service's Northern Plains region, which stretches from Montana to Michigan and includes North Dakota and Minnesota. There was no breakdown by state or tribe.

Reservations in the Northern Plains region tend to be remote and include some of the most economically challenged in the nation, the CDC report said, factors that may contribute to the higher alcohol-related death rate.

Whatever the reasons for the problem, the report should be "a call to action" for federal, state, local and tribal governments, said Dwayne Jarman, one of the study's authors and a CDC epidemiologist who works for the Indian Health Service.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Jarman recommended increased alcohol excise taxes to cut demand and more rigorously enforcing policies against serving people who already are intoxicated. "We also need to look at new community-specific ways to address the problem," he said, as well as closer coordination between tribal health centers and tribal courts.

Accidents, disease

CDC researchers examined death certificates recorded from 2001 to 2005. Traffic accidents and alcoholic liver disease were the two leading causes of alcohol-related deaths, according to the report, each contributing about a fourth of the 1,514 deaths. Other causes included homicide and suicide.

The study may have undercounted alcohol-related deaths, according to the report, because it did not include deaths attributed to certain diseases, such as colon cancer, where alcoholism is considered a major risk factor.

About two-thirds of the Indians whose deaths were alcohol-related were men, and nearly two-thirds were younger than 50.

Seven percent were younger than 20.

The study results confirm previous findings that alcoholism remains a crippling problem on reservations despite development in recent years of "red road" recovery programs designed around Indian cultural values. It recommends further development of "culturally appropriate clinical interventions" and closer coordination between tribal health centers and tribal courts.

Spirit Lake, White Earth

Linda Duckwitz, a licensed addiction counselor at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, said the CDC statistics "are very troubling," but "North Dakota in general is still in the cave when it comes to permissive attitudes toward binge drinking, drinking while driving and alcoholism."

The Spirit Lake Tribe "is doing some creative things," including relapse prevention and "equine therapy," where young addicts in treatment work with horses, she said, but the programs are hampered by a lack of state funding for treatment programs that aren't hospital-based.

At Minnesota's White Earth Indian Reservation, a substance abuse program provides intervention and prevention services, diagnosis and referrals, manager Pat Moran said. The band also operates several outpatient and after-care sites on the reservation and an in-patient treatment center for women and their children in Mahnomen.

"Those numbers don't surprise me at all," Moran said Thursday after hearing about the CDC report. "We have a high rate of alcoholism on the reservation, and a majority of deaths here are related" to alcohol or other chemical abuse.

The White Earth program is "short-staffed and short-funded," she said. "We're always looking for more money to do more things."

But the band is making progress, she said.

"I see people who are out walking who are in recovery," she said. "I'm one of them."

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians also operates prevention, treatment, outpatient and rehabilitation programs for chemical dependency, as well as a halfway house and a group home. A spokeswoman declined to comment on the CDC report, however, saying that any comment would have to come from the program director, who was unavailable.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to