It has been consistently found in Aboriginal communities that the continuation of cultural traditions of is vital to the maintenance, resilience, and health of a society. For a community familiar to forced acculturation and discrimination, the identity and empowerment found in the conservation of Aboriginal culture has been said to have the power to redirect communities away from negative behaviors that are seen as “both a cause and consequence of numerous social ills,” including suicide and substance abuse.

However, the relationships and roles that arise from Aboriginal culture have the power to transmit more than just knowledge regarding tradition but, in some instances, may also transfer ideas and practices surrounding substance abuse. In a paper recently published in Human Organization—the journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology—REACH researchers highlighted this complex phenomenon through their study of a northern Inuit community.

The research team’s findings are based on the large and complex social network found within the community with insights gathered through 330 interviews with participants over a span of five months. Throughout the study, it was found that relationships that help sustain the community (including transfer of traditional knowledge and trade of subsistence foods) heavily overlap with the networks of alcohol co-use. Thus, as researchers noted, “the sources of cultural continuity and resilience are embedded in activities that may also be considered harmful.” This finding leads to philosophical concerns about the way we perceive alcohol use within social networks, creating the idea of confounding culture.

As is noted in the recent study, prevention and intervention measures in Aboriginal communities are mostly blind to the fact that those who do not use alcohol also have severely weaker and severed ties to relationships that facilitate sharing of food and knowledge, providing a possible incentive to engage in alcohol co-use. This complicates many well intentioned programs which fail due to a lack of cultural knowledge, but there is also skepticism of whether culture-based initiatives (CBI) can do an effective job of intervening while maintaining the community’s own cultural views and values.

The team suggests then that we need a new way of approaching Aboriginal substance use and mental health. Moving forward, interventions need to be more culturally-tailored to account for the complexities of alcohol use in these cultural contexts.

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