For the past half century, Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step recovery program has been the dominant method for treating alcohol abuse in the United States. Reservation communities have been no exception. But as Erica Prussing vividly describes in her new book, White Man’s Water: The Politics of Sobriety in a Native American Community (University of Arizona Press, 2011), a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment does not, in fact, fit all.
An assistant professor of anthropology and community and behavior health at the University of Iowa, Prussing lived for three years on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, working with community organizations, building long-lasting relationships, and gathering testimonies of alcohol’s often disruptive impacts on the lives of many Northern Cheyenne. While many young women have embraced the 12-step program, others – particularly of the older generation – find its moral assumptions foreign and unhelpful. What emerges from Prussing’s account is not a reductive and totalizing “Cheyenne culture” but rather a complex negotiation of tradition, community, and recovery in the face of persistent colonial challenges. This nuance and attention to detail makes Prussing’s call for indigenous self-determination in health care all the more powerful.