Native American Sobriety Circles

By Jodi Sh. Doff 05/19/15

How a Native American approach to sobriety preceded all modern forms of recovery by almost a century.


Growing up, I was always accused of running around like a “drunken Indian.” Watching John Wayne Westerns, and listening to Johnny Cash sing about “drunken Ira Hayes …the whiskey drinkin' Indian” taught me that Indians can’t hold their liquor. Turns out that's not exactly true. If Native Americans have a high rate of alcoholism, it’s more environmental and cultural than it is ancestral or genetic. It’s only recently that Native American contributions to the history of recovery from alcoholism and the start of mutual aid societies in America have even begun to be recognized.

Booze of some sort has been around for as long as humans and anything that could possibly be fermented have existed side-by-side. Put people and plants in the same room, and someone is going to discover a way to turn that plant into something intoxicating. The white man might have introduced whiskey to the Native Americans, but in South and Central America, in the Mayan and the Aztec Nations, alcoholic beverages were being brewed and enjoyed long before the arrival of the white European invaders. These home-brew recipes worked their way North, and although contained primarily in the Southwest, there are accounts of alcohol use among other American Indians and Alaskan Natives. There were drinks such as balche (a mead-like drink), haren a pitahaya (wine from saguaro cacti), tulpi beer and other beverages.

Many of the tribes found alcoholic intoxication to be a state much like the trances their beliefs encouraged. The Apache and Zuni of Arizona and New Mexico and the Pima and Papago of South-Central Arizona used fermented drinks in religious ceremonies. Fruits, agave cactus, and mesquite seeds were being made into fermented native drinks at least as far back as the mid-1500s. The Apache of the Southwest brewed a beer-like drink called tiswin using maize or mesquite beans. The Aztecs handed down pulque—fermented agave cactus—a drink that was popular with Native Americans and by the time you showed up, it was tequila. Both Native Americans and alcohol existed in North America long before the white man, with different tribes drinking different beverages to different extents. 

The beginning of alcoholic mutual aid societies—today’s Alcoholics AnonymousModeration ManagementSMART Recovery and so on—is usually attributed to the Washingtonians in the mid-1800s, but a century earlier, in the 1750s, “sobriety circles” were formed in Native American tribes across the country. In the tradition of “wounded healers”—the belief that recovery from a devastating illness is a sign of a healer—Native American sobriety circles were led by tribe members who’d survived their own battles with playing drink, drink, drunk. The movement leaders used their own recoveries from alcoholism to launch abstinence-based movements that called for the complete rejection of alcohol and a return to ancestral traditions. 

Recovery circles and abstinence-based cultural movements included the Delaware prophet movements, the Christian Indian revivalists who used their own lives as proof Christian conversion and worship could cure alcoholism, the Shawnee Prophet and Kickapoo Prophet movements, Indian temperance societies, the Indian Shaker Church, and the Native American Church. Although not mentioned in the Alcoholics Anonymous literature, one of the earliest equivalents of AA’s 12 steps and “Big Book” was the orally-transmitted teachings of the Gai'wiiò of Ganioda'yo—the Good Message of Handsome Lake—later known as the Code of Handsome Lake. What most Native recovery pioneering movements shared was an expectation of personal sobriety, the use of ancestral teachings to anchor that sobriety, and a code of moral conduct. Sometimes called the “Red Road,” it’s a way of achieving sobriety and healing both personal and cultural wounds through the use of purification and healing rituals, sober role models, a design for repairing family and social relationships, and a reconnection with both ancestral and contemporary Native cultures. 

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935, and what’s been called the "Indianization of Alcoholics Anonymous” started in the '60s when the 12 steps began to be adapted and meeting rituals were enhanced to be better suited within Native communities. But it was the Native American methods found in those original sobriety circles—sharing the experience of getting and staying sober with those still battling alcoholism—that’s survived in the field of alcoholism counseling today. It’s seen in rehabs and treatment communities, and in the way AA sponsors work with newcomers to the program. AA’s encouragement of its members to seek a higher power of their own understanding is an echo of sobriety circles’ instructions to the recovering alcoholic to reconnect with their ancestral heritage and the beliefs they’d lost wading through the muck of their alcoholism.

Sobriety circles focused on a reconnection to community, recovering people supported by an even larger cultural community, not unlike the structure of today’s AA meetings, the regional and international conventions, and the concept of fellowship. Today’s 8th and 9th steps, where recovering alcoholics are asked to acknowledge the harms they’ve done and then make amends, is a mirror image of the sobriety circles’ and Wellbriety concept of reconciliation to mend relationships. The emphasis on the tradition of storytelling—sharing life-changing events and ideas—is seen today in the AA qualifications: a sober alcoholic sharing his or her story of experience, strength, and hope with the group. Ceremony and ritual are part of our nature, solidifying values and relationships. Those are our day counts, anniversary celebrations, and the readings of regular materials in each meeting. And while Native American sobriety circles replaced alcohol with other sacred substances such as peyote, tobacco, or sage, we have AA coffee. If you don’t think it’s sacred and powerful, just see what happens when the coffee person shows up late.

Personal recovery for Native Americans is best framed within a broader umbrella of Wellbriety—physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual health—an affirmation of the interconnectedness of all aspects of one's life. It’s a blend of all the movements that preceded it, calling for global solutions, with treatment plans that include the person, the family, and the tribe, and advocates for both personal and cultural support systems. One of the leaders of the Wellbriety movement is White Bison, a nonprofit working to expand recovery support structures within Native communities across North America through education, awareness walks, training indigenous leaders to organize recovery circles, hosting celebration events in local communities, and advocating for culturally-appropriate policies and treatment approaches.

White Bison recently published The Red Road To Wellbriety, which brings together the teachings of the Native American Medicine Wheel with the 12-step tradition. "Time and again our Elders have said that the 12 steps of AA are just the same as the principles that our ancestors lived by, with only one change. When we place the 12 steps in a circle then they come into alignment with the circle teachings that we know from many of our tribal ways. Wellbriety is defined as 'to be sober and well.' Wellbriety teaches that we must find sobriety from addictions to alcohol and other drugs and recover from the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol on individuals, families and whole communities. The ‘Well’ part of Wellbriety is the inspiration to go on beyond sobriety and recovery, committing to a life of wellness and healing everyday.” 

The White Bison Wellbriety Philosophy

We believe...

Mother Earth is governed by a set of Principles, Laws and Values.

Leadership exists to serve the people first.

Leadership existence is to ensure that information (Truth) is given to the people.

Changes are the result of implementing Natural laws.

All Native people believe in a Supreme Being.

In the Elders and teachings as a guiding force to direct ourselves, families and communities.

That there is a natural order running the universe.

That our traditional ways were knowledgeable about the natural order.

When the community leads, the leaders will follow.

Alcohol and drugs are destroying us and we want to recover.

That change comes from within the individual, the family and the community.

That within each person, family and community is the innate knowledge for well being.

The solution resides within each community.

Interconnectedness - it takes everyone to heal the community.

Healing will take place through the application of cultural and spiritual knowledge.

Alcohol is a symptom...not the cause, drugs are a symptom...not the cause, domestic violence is a symptom...not the cause. To "heal a community" it needs to deal with the cause.

That the Circle and the Four Directions are the Teachers.

In the Four Laws of Change.

Change is from within.

In order for development to occur, it must be preceded by a vision.

A great learning must take place.

You must create a Healing Forest.

Our culture is prevention.

Jodi Sh. Doff has written for Bust, Cosmopolitan, xoJane and Penthouse among many other publications. Her last pieces for The Fix were about non-celebrity overdosesthe Hangover Club and powdered booze.

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Jodi Sh. Doff is a self-described scribbler, shutterbug, and succulent cactus. She writes about booze, sex, crime, and righteous feminist indignation. She is also an editor, script doctor and a ghostwriter for non-native english speakers. You can find Jodi on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.