"Touch not the poisonous firewater that turns wise men to fools and robs the spirit of its vision." ~ Tecumseh
This quote, attributed to one of Turtle Island’s legendary Indian heroes, is used as a footnote on messages distributed by the dedicated Union of Ontario Indians FASD team.
They have conducted hundreds of workshops around Anishinabek Nation territory using creative and positive ways to bring home the message that one drink by a pregnant mother can result in a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, a life sentence of learning disabilities and physical and mental challenges.
Tecumseh had first-hand knowledge of the damage that could be caused by firewater — his brother Tenskwatawa frittered away much of his early life because of his fondness for white man’s whiskey. Then history tells us that in 1805 Tenskwatawa fell into a trance and had a vision. When he awoke, he became The Prophet, calling for Indians to totally reject white culture – clothing, technology, religion – and alcohol.
His dream of a pan-Indian confederacy was taken up by Tecumseh, who extracted a promise from Sir Isaac Brock for an Indian Territory should the British repel the American invasion of 1812. The Native warriors – some 10,000 of them – did just that, but Brock’s promise died with him on the battlefield at Queenston Heights.
Native leaders were only too aware of the ways used by the creeping settler populations to gobble up land and resources from local populations unused to the power of both the gun and the bottle. For an unwary Indian to slug down a jar of trader whiskey would have had the same effect as if it had been given to a child.
This is not to fall into the trap of those who promote the stereotype of Indians unable to hold their drink. I was reading a medical study the other day that indicated that a test group of Native Americans showed greater resistance to the intoxicating effects of alcohol than their Caucasian cousins.
The stereotype of the Indian being genetically unequipped to hold his liquor is, of course, just as flawed as the fallacy that only Native kids get FASD.
David Boulding understands this – and his research is as tough for some people to swallow as it is to refute.
“Rich, white women drink while they’re pregnant,” says Boulding, a B.C. lawyer who has chosen to make FASD a personal cause. But the affluent families avoid the stigma associated with alcohol-related illnesses by claiming their kids have attention-deficit-syndrome, or some more socially-acceptable disorder, he says. There is usually funding in the education system for such “acceptable” maladies, he points out.
Boulding’s frankness rattled a few jourmalists interviewing the keynote speaker at December’s Anishinabek G7 conference on FASD in Sudbury, most of whom had no idea that the 4,000 new cases of FASD being diagnosed each year in Canada carry a $ 4 billion price tag.
“ It’s a colour-blind disorder ,” agrees Angela Recollet, executive director of the Skagamaik-Kwe Health Centre, one of the Sudbury conference sponsors.
The sad fact is that a few ounces of distilled spirits can turn a wise man of any race creed or colour into a fool, and rob his spirit of its vision.
Something perhaps worth a second thought with the glass-clinking season upon us; a toast to one’s good health takes on an entirely different meaning.
Happy holidays to all.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News. He last socially drank alcohol in 1995.