Tim Giago: Oglala Sioux Tribe should consider a wet reservation

Published Monday July 12, 2010

Prohibition doesn’t work!

It lasted 13 years in America and gave life to nationally syndicated crime, the income tax and opposition by the United States Brewers’ Association to Women’s Suffrage: the right for women to vote.

All of this is detailed in a new book by Daniel Okrent; “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” The book, according to columnist George Will, “recounts how Americans abolished a widely exercised private right – and condemned the nation’s fifth largest industry – in order to make the nation more Heavenly. Then all hell broke loose.”

Prohibition was introduced and imposed on Indian reservations for several reasons. First of all unscrupulous traders and agents used alcohol to induce Indians to sell furs and other goods and ridiculously low prices, and caused Indians to sign away large tracts of lands, lands that in all probability, did not belong to them or their tribe. It was like the government found an Indian, poured alcohol down his gullet, and then said, “Here’s a treaty for land: just put your mark on it.”There was also a great fear among the settlers that their enemies, in those days the French or the British, would ply the Indians with alcohol and turn them loose on the settlers. This, in fact, did happen occasionally.

In other words, the imposition of prohibition in Indian country was hatched in the minds of white settlers and Christian missionaries who, strangely enough, were allowed to use wine during church services in the midst of the national Prohibition even though it was otherwise banned all across America.

Prohibition has been in place on most Indian reservations, particularly in the Great Plains, since the founding of the United States. Indian reservations like some of the largest, Navajo Nation and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, have some of the highest statistics of alcoholism per capita than any other cities or communities in America. If alcohol is forbidden on these reservations then why is there rampant alcoholism present there?

There are two answers to that question: bootleggers and bordertowns. It sounds like the title for a book, doesn’t it; “Bootleggers and Bordertowns.”And there are those who say that Indians have a genetic code that causes them to be addicted to alcohol. When something is addicting, but forbidden, the users and abusers will find a way to get it. A little word like prohibition will not stop them. Alcohol is as addictive as cocaine or other drugs and yet it can be purchased legally in border towns and illegally all over the reservations from bootleggers.

There isn’t room in this column to speak about the multitude of problems that alcohol has brought to lives of the Indian people living on dry reservations. The prisons and jails in Indian country are filled with Native Americans who committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Murders, rapes, robberies, suicide, spousal and child abuse, and joblessness are just a few of the terrible things that happen to Indian men and women because of their addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Perhaps it is too late in her administration to do it now, but Oglala Sioux Tribal President, Theresa Two Bulls, and her council should have started an investigation into the possibilities of legalizing alcohol. At least the tribe would have had some control over the dispensing of alcohol and from the benefits of the profits. With income from the sale of liquor, new and effective alcohol and drug addiction programs could have been started and the income could have gone to the improvement of life on the reservation.

We are not saying that the sale of alcohol should be legalized, but what we are saying is that a comprehensive study should be made that addresses the pros and cons. When a referendum was held several years ago the large sums of money raised to fight against legalizing alcohol sales on Pine Ridge came from, of all people, the liquor merchants from Whiteclay, Rushville and Gordon, Neb.

Tribal council representatives were bought off right and left, or so it is said. The liquor merchants of Nebraska prevailed and it was they, with all of their bribes, who decided to keep liquor outlawed on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They did not want the competition or the loss of the millions they make every year selling alcohol to the residents of Pine Ridge. Liquor in and of itself is not evil; but it is the abuse of alcohol that presents the problems. Many years ago an alcohol counselor from Pine Ridge said much the same thing about alcohol. He said, “No one put a gun to my head and told me to drink that beer or they’d shoot me.” Clearly the choice was his to make.

Our choices are not always the right ones, prohibition or not. But the idea of legalizing the sale of alcohol on dry reservations deserves a sound and thorough study.

It is time this Council or the next Council took a serious look at prohibition.

Prohibition doesn’t work!

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

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