Hopelessness of Whiteclay can be ended

Published May 24, 2005

Too many people see the drunks on the streets of Whiteclay and rampant alcoholism on the Pine Ridge Reservation and fall into hopelessness. Sadly, this includes some Lakota. It’s important to remember that things don’t have to be this way.

Alcoholism, depression and irresponsibility are not an inevitable, permanent part of Lakota culture. The Lakota were once a proud people who thrived without alcohol. They can be again.

The current problems portrayed in the Journal Star’s “Standing at the Crossroads” special report can be overcome. There’s some evidence that improvement already has begun, that the downward spiral might be reversing.

Admittedly, the challenge is daunting. The characteristic that distinguishes alcoholism and its related ills at Whiteclay and Pine Ridge is the sheer pervasiveness of addiction.

It’s important to remember that the same problems are found closer to home. Alcoholism is part of the dominant white culture, too. Remember the binge drinking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Remember stories such as that of Ken Cauble, the former UNL basketball star and chief of UNL campus police who ended up homeless before he died last December.

Terryl Blue-White Eyes, director of Anpetu Luta Otipi, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s only treatment center, believes that the attitudes toward drinking in the Lakota culture are changing for the better.

She told reporter Kevin Abourezk that 20 years ago, few sober individuals could be found on the reservation. Now entire families are trying to stay straight. Drunks have become a rarity at public events like basketball games and powwows.

In part the sobriety movement has learned to use tools from the Lakota culture itself — the very ceremonies and cultural beliefs the Lakota carried with them for centuries, predating the long years when alcohol has ravaged the Lakota soul.

Sober individuals, such as Gene Giago, a 50-year-old who quit drinking 26 years ago, inspire their children. And they are an inspiration to others. Alcoholism blanks out too many futures in Pine Ridge, but there is another path. The sober are showing the way.

The Winnebago once were plagued with many of the same problems as the Lakota.

Key to a turnaround was economic development, according to Lance Morgan, the chief executive of Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic arm. Morgan, a major force behind the Winnebago’s economic rejuvenation, suggests that creating an economic development corporation independent of tribal politics is essential. An independent observer might also add that another key is finding a person of Morgan’s business acumen to run the corporation.

The common element in the success seen by the Winnebago and counselor Terryl Blue-White Eyes is that the solutions come from within the tribes themselves.

State and federal government can help — more funding for treatment should be a priority — but the most encouraging sign that one day the miserable town of Whiteclay will just be a bad memory is the courage shown by the growing number of Lakota who find the strength in themselves and their culture to defeat alcohol and hopelessness.

Legend has it that the seventh generation of Lakota after Wounded Knee will mend the sacred hoop of their people. Perhaps future generations, looking back, will see that this was the era when the despair began to lift.

There is still hope.


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