How the Biological Vulnerability Myth Affected One Native Child


Editor’s note: Ms. Hannah Tomeo is a Training and Research Coordinator at the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, a residential treatment center for adolescents in Spokane, WA. She is a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and is also a descendant of the Yakima Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe, and is Samoan Pacific Islander. She shares her story about the harmful effects of the Firewater Myth as part of our Special Series on Addiction Myths and Misinformation.

Growing up, I was not the best student. I have ADHD and the majority of my educational career I had absolutely no idea I was dyslexic. Along the way I had two amazing teachers: one who gave me writing prompts and books that engaged my curiosity, and one, a science teacher, who gave me an avenue to express this curiosity. My grades began to improve and a seed was planted by these teachers. That maybe, just maybe, I was smart. Each year after, I began to envision what I might be some day. One of my favorite things to imagine was that I would grow up to be a scientist.

This seed began to flourish as I began signing up for science classes in high school. I was particularly excited for the class labs. One day I sat in the front of my high school science class eagerly. Today we would be talking about genetics. I opened my notebook and began to decorate the header “genetics” with colorful pens. As I moved on to create a colorful name and date, I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of my own name. Did I hear that right? My teacher casually stated that “because Hannah is Native American, it is in her genetics to be an alcoholic.” Embarrassment shot through my body, leaving shame as the bitter aftertaste. I searched his face for malicious intent and found none. Because when someone believes they are stating a fact, there is very little emotion involved.

Now looking back and reflecting, I believe that small encounter impacted me deeply, leaving a complex that would alter my identity for many years. I stopped pursuing science; it became just another class. I began to notice the small comments more surrounding my Native American community. Small jokes about Native Americans being alcoholics stung more even after the joker casually stated “no offense.” I began to overcompensate in other areas, excelling in sports in an attempt to reverse the way I believed everyone saw me, as the alcoholic I was predestined to be. Deep down I began to question my own autonomy, wishing I wasn’t born at a genetic disadvantage. It was a long journey to healing.

Now I am a Training and Research Coordinator at the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, a residential treatment center for teens experiencing addiction. The Healing Lodge was founded by a consortium of tribes and serves both Native and non-Native teens. As part of the Center for Indigenous Research, Collaboration, Learning, and Excellence (CIRCLE), I get to present a training called xaʔtu̓s (First Face) for Mental Health to tribal communities. This training is intended to break sigmas and myths around mental health, violence, and addiction in tribal communities.

My story is just one way a Native American has been impacted by this myth and stereotype, and, although I can’t speak for my whole community, I can confidently say I know many who can relate. However, I am hopeful that the more we begin to challenge this stereotype and offer proper education on the subject, fewer and fewer Native children will be able to relate to my story. Addiction in Native communities is very real, and deserves to be properly researched and taught if we ever hope for healing.

— Hannah Tomeo

What do you think? Please use the comment link below to provide feedback on this article.

2 thoughts on “How the Biological Vulnerability Myth Affected One Native Child

  1. Jose C. Reply

    That native Americans are more prone to addiction is not a myth, but neither is it their destiny. Just like having members in your family who are alcoholic makes you an alcoholic. Your family can be loaded with alcoholic ancestors but that does not mean that you will become one because no one is predestined to be one. Everyone enters into this world with certain pre-dispositions to acquire certain disease, heart problem, cancer, diabetes, alcoholism etc. but you are not predestined to get those diseases. But you need to look at them and take the necessary steps to avoid them. The teacher made a mistake by telling her that she was going to become and alcoholic, but it is not a myth and to not tell her that she had a higher probability because of her biological make up and her environment will also be a disservice to her because then she will not take the steps necessary to avoid it from happening.

    1. Hannah Tomeo Reply

      Thank you for your response to my post. I’d just like to clarify that my teacher was specifically talking about the firewater myth. The firewater myth is the idea that genetics play a stronger role in drinking for Native people than it does for anyone else. Genetic studies really don’t support this idea. I agree with you that as a Native person, I am just as susceptible to risk factors like family history than someone from any other group. Other factors increase our risk for addiction. In our First Face for Mental Health training ( , we teach that, “chronic stress increases anyone’s risk for addiction, and higher rates of addiction within Native communities are best understood as a consequence of economic hardship, culture theft, social disintegration, and other societal forces.”

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