Perhaps the most prominent problem for Indian Agents throughout the nineteenth century, was the illegal sale and transport of liquor to the Indians and agencies in their charge. In nearly every report written by agents, the sale, consumption, and traffic of liquor was a major issue. The problem was so great, that in 1861, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole called it “the greatest evil with which the Indians have to contend.”
When alcohol was introduced to tribes across North America, the native peoples had no cultural context for drinking. The only drinking they observed came from the often poor examples of soldiers, traders, and trappers. Therefore, once alcohol was introduced, it immediately disrupted tribal life and traditions and was propagated by traders and sellers who sought to make a profit.
Having recognized the deleterious effect of alcohol upon Indian tribes, in 1802 the United States Congress gave the President the authority to regulate trade and intercourse with Native Americans which included the prohibition of alcohol among them. By 1834, the authority to prohibit alcohol among native tribes had been transferred to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Congress passed the official “Act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes, and to preserve peace on the frontiers.” The act was not directed against the Indian, but was meant to prevent the sale and transport of liquor within Indian country.
Although Congress recognized the importance of prohibiting alcohol within Native American regions, the laws were difficult to enforce. First, there was the problem of evidence because it was difficult to find out who was selling the alcohol. Second, getting a jury to convict was a problem. And third, the punishment rendered was often not enough to make the guilty party stop selling liquor.
Those who sought to sell and traffic liquor in Indian country often found a way to make it possible despite the intentions of the laws against it and this had an extremely negative effect upon the condition of Native tribes. As stated by the Sioux agent Nathaniel McLean in 1851: “The legislature of the State and the Territory have passed stringent and wholesome laws against selling liquor to the Indians, still we have men vile enough to vend the article, and generally so manage it as to evade the law. It is deeply to be regretted that . . . there are some always found on our frontier, whose only livelihood is to sell whiskey, and strip the poor Indian of his earnings and the pittance allowed him by the Government, giving in exchange that which makes him miserable.”
United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Minnesota Superintendency,” in Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1851. Washington: Gideon and Co., 1851, 170.
Martin, Jill E. “The Greatest Evil: Interpretations of Indian Prohibition Laws, 1832 – 1953,” in Great Plains Quarterly. 23:1 (Winter 2003), 35 – 53.