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Danny Vaile
Native American Literature
Alcoholism in The Death of Bernadette Lefthand
Throughout the novel, The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, the dangers and
destruction caused by alcoholism are a consistent and vital message essential to
understanding the major themes of the story. The book addresses the shocking
impact that alcoholism has on Indian reservations in todays society. After reading,
The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, it is clear that alcoholism is a dangerous and
destructive part of living on Indian Reservations. Unfortunately, the Indians
struggle against alcoholism is not focused upon or given the attention it deserves in
our culture. Therefore, there are many aspects in which alcoholism continues to
create conflicts and tear apart communities inside Indian Reservations in America.
There are multiple narrators in the novel that present their own perspective
of Bernadette and the events that took place in the story. However, the main
narrator is Bernadettes younger sister Gracie. The way Gracie describes Bernadette
makes it clear that she idolizes her older sister and that the people on the
reservation also admires her as well. Gracie believes that Anderson George,
Bernadettes husband, is the person who murdered her sister and she believes the
whole situation involving the murder is suspicious. Even though Gracie liked
Anderson and knew about his struggle with alcoholism, she still finds it hard to
believe that he would commit such a horrible crime. At the conclusion of the story,
the reader only then discovers that an evil man named Emmett Take Horse frames
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Anderson for the murder, and that Andersons alcoholism is the main reason he
ends up being framed for a murder he did not commit.
Although The Death of Bernadette Lefthand is a fictional story, it does focus
on the severe problem of alcoholism on Indian Reservations today. It is disturbing
and at the same time ironic that alcohol is one of the most troubling causes of death
on Native American Reservations because alcohol is illegal on the reservations.
Unfortunately, this does not stop liquor stores from selling alcohol to natives when
they are off the reservation; therefore, contributing to the overwhelming problem of
alcoholism. In fact, according to an article about alcoholism on Native American
Reservations in 2012, Native Americans of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near
Whiteclay, Nebraska, have filed a $500-million lawsuit against beer manufacturers
for the devastation that alcohol has wreaked on their community for decades
(Ghosh). The money in which they hope to receive from this lawsuit would be put
towards health care, social services, and child rehabilitation for those who have
been affected by alcohol supplied by the majority of the notable alcohol brands
(Ghosh). However, even though this is a step forward for the Native American
community in their fight against alcohol and alcohol abuse, they still have a long way
to go when it comes to ridding their communities of alcohol.
Alcoholism is the most important theme in this novel because it takes over
Anderson Georges life, gives him a bad reputation throughout the reservation and
causes people to believe he murdered his wife Bernadette. Anderson did drink
before the freak accident that killed his brother Tom, but after the accident, it is
clear to both Bernadette and Gracie that he struggles with alcohol. This is an
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example of how depression and alcoholism are related. It is obvious that Gracie
notices the signs of the bad relationship between Bernadette and Anderson when
she says, She never really let on, but I figure the reason she went back so soon was
on account of the fact that Anderson wouldnt go to work most daysthat hed stay
over at Dees drinkin beer till they closed down most nights and then sleep till noon
and maybe hed go to work a little while with Starr Stubbs horses in the afternoon
and maybe he wouldnt (Querry 181). Not only does alcoholism bring destruction
to Anderson and Bernadette, but also causes people on the reservation, such as
Gracie, to lose the trust and the respect they have for him. Andersons struggle with
alcoholism ruins his reputation as a respectable man and as a result, it becomes
difficult for anyone to believe that he is not responsible for the death of Bernadette
Lefthand.
Since Native Americans are considered minorities in society, they do not
have the support or means to improve their current situation regarding alcoholism.
However, it has been proven that some cultures are more likely to struggle with
alcoholism and Native Americans do fall under that category. It is shocking to
discover how much alcohol negatively affects those who live on Native American
Reservations. According the an article by Palash Ghosh concerning alcoholism on
reservations, According to the Indian Health Services, the rate of alcoholism among
Native Americans is six times the U.S. average (Ghosh). This may seem surprising to
some because the population of people who live on reservations is so small, but that
only makes the problem seem more serious. Especially since it is illegal to have
alcohol on reservations, it is appalling to discover how much something that is
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illegal is destroying their communities at a frightening and increasing rate.
According to Bethany Winkel, an expert on alcoholism, addiction, and treatment,
Certain ethnic groups experience alcoholism on a wider levelNative Americans
are one such group. Their rate of alcoholism is much higher than the rest of the
population, and one in 10 Native American deaths is alcohol-related [three times the
average for the broader population] (Ghosh). Even for those who admit to
struggling with alcohol abuse who live on reservations, there is no help for addiction
on the reservation. Ghosh agrees that, The newness of the substance had a great
influence on the Native American culture. But researchers over the years have
shown that the effects of alcohol on this culture are also due to genetics (Ghosh).
The combination of risk, genetics, and oppression all contribute to their struggle
with alcoholism.
Although genetics and poor lifestyle are responsible for the shocking and
deadly spread of alcoholism throughout Native American reservations, the issue
with alcoholism began much earlier in history. It is widely known that when
Christopher Columbus came to America, he gave the Native Americans alcohol in
order to trade with them and trick them into believing they only had good
intentions. According to Ghosh, The decline of the Native American culture when
European settlers moved in led to an oppressed society (Ghosh). Throughout
history, the American government has been discriminating and attempting to
destroy Indians. According to an article by Bill Graves, he states, Government
policies that separated Native people from their land, family, and customs also made
them more vulnerable to alcohol and drugs, tribal health leaders say (Graves).
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However, times have changed and although the government long tried to extract
culture from Native lives, now initiatives include it (Graves). This consistent cycle
of oppression and discrimination mentally destroys Native Americans and is one of
the key factors contributing to their struggle with alcoholism. If Native Americans
had a greater voice or political influence, the chances of improving their lives and
living situation would increase. Also, if Americans were more aware of the daily
struggles of Native Americans that live on reservations, then they could appreciate
their needs and perhaps help them improve their lives. Unfortunately, even though
there has been some improvement in the way Natives are treated by the
government, this never-ending cycle of alcohol abuse is taking a deadly turn for the
worst on most Native American reservations.
The rate of death involving alcohol on Native American Reservations is
sickening. According to an article from NBC News, Almost 12 percent of the deaths
among Native Americans and Alaska Natives are alcohol-relatedmore than three
times the percentage in the general population, a new federal report says (1 in 10
Natives). It is interesting because if these types of numbers and statistics were
showing up for the rest of American society, it would be one of the top priorities to
fix. However, since Native Americans barely have any recognition in society, these
problems are ignored again and again. According to the study, The two leading
causes of alcohol-related deaths among Indians were traffic accidents and alcoholic
liver disease, each of which cause more than a quarter of the 1,514 alcohol related
deaths over the four year period (1 in 10 Natives). Although 1,514 may not seem
like a large number of deaths over a four-year period, since the Indian population is
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already so small, that is a frighteningly large number of deaths. Even though
alcoholism still negatively affects people on Indian Reservations, one reservation is
trying to make a change for the better.
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, alcoholism runs
rampant throughout the reservation. According to a study, Alcoholism both directly
and indirectly affects 85 percent of the people on the reservation (Wisch). However,
Gayle Kocer and Suzy Dennis are trying to make a difference to improve the lives of
those struggling with alcoholism on the reservation and defeat alcoholism one step
at a time (Wisch). Their clinic is off the reservation, but is the closest rehabilitation
center to the large reservation with staggering alcoholism statistics. Dennis
comments that he has a reason for opening the clinic and it is that, I always believe
theres hope or I would not do this (Wisch). These types of statements inspire hope
in those struggling with alcoholism and increase the chances of people reaching out
for help. However, like any rehabilitation center, the services are not free. According
to Wisch, The center wont turn anyone away, but few clients can pay. Almost half
of Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census data,
but some put that number far higher (Wisch). Although help does come at a cost,
this center is dedicated to helping Native Americans in their fight against
alcoholism. Even though they recognize it will not be an easy battle to win, they still
have hope.
Alcoholism runs rampant throughout Indian Reservations across the United
States; however, there is hope for change. People are becoming more aware of the
alcohol related problems that people who live on reservations face. The more
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people become educated about these issues, the more help those fighting alcoholism
will receive. In the novel, The Death of Bernadette Lefthand, Andersons
alcoholism ultimately gets the best of him costing him both his wife and his
reputation. Although he was framed for a murder he did not commit, his problem
with alcohol was so well known throughout the community, he did not stand a
chance in proving himself innocent. The novel provides readers with insight into
how alcoholism can ruin someones life and the importance of trying to end
alcoholism in Indian Reservations across America.














Works Cited
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Ghosh, Palash R. "Native Americans: The Tragedy of Alcoholism." International
Business Times. IBT Medias, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 May 2014.
<http://www.ibtimes.com/native-americans-tragedy-alcoholism-214046>.
Graves, Bill. "Native Americans Strive for Health against Alcohol, Chaos and Trauma."
The Oregonian. N.p., 26 June 2012. Web. 11 May 2014.
<http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2012/06/portland_native_american_
healt.html>.
"1 in 10 Native American Deaths Alcohol Related." NBC News. Associated Press, 2013.
Web. 11 May 2014. <http://www.nbcnews.com/id/26439767/ns/health-
addictions/t/native-american-deaths-alcohol-related/#.U2-caNyJlg0>.
Querry, Ron. The Death of Bernadette Lefthand. New York: Bantam Books, 1993. Print.
Wisch, Robyn. "Fighting Alcoholism on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Is More than
Money." KVNO News. Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, 19 July 2012.
Web. 11 May 2014. <http://netnebraska.org/article/news/fighting-alcoholism-
pine-ridge-indian-reservation-about-more-money>.