Principle or practical: Reservation alcohol ban sparks debate

Many say residents should decide
Published May 18, 2007

The federal prosecution of three accused bootleggers has renewed a debate over whether alcohol should be legalized on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In a nutshell, the issue comes down to whether the tribe should stand by its alcohol ban as a matter of principle or take a practical approach and benefit from the money residents now spend buying alcohol off the reservation.

Many say Pine Ridge residents should decide.

“It really is up to the people that live here,” said Terryl Blue-White Eyes, director of Anpetu Luta Otipi treatment program at Porcupine. The alcohol ban was discussed on the tribal council floor a few years ago but died without being referred to a public vote, she said. “I really wish the people could speak on this.”

So does tribal councilman Tom Poor Bear, who represents Eagle Nest District.

“That’s the way it should be done,” he said. “The people should have their say.”

By law, American Indian people in the U.S. were prohibited from buying alcohol until 1953. Alcohol has been banned on the Pine Ridge reservation since the 1970s.

Because Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that doesn’t allow alcohol, it is also the only reservation where the U.S. Attorney’s Office enforces a federal law against dispensing intoxicants in Indian Country, a crime punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

On Monday, Juanita Jumping Eagle of Manderson and Louise Jumping Eagle of Pine Ridge were sentenced in U.S. District Court to two years of probation after admitting they sold vodka to an undercover Bureau of Indian Affairs agent in December 2005.

A third woman, Judy Lays Hard of Kyle, has pleaded not guilty to the same federal charge.

Federal attorneys who handle criminal cases on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation say it has been several years since a bootlegging case was prosecuted in U.S. District Court (tribal courts can also enforce the tribal law). U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley told an Associated Press reporter that his office has increased enforcement of the law in response to requests from elders and tribal leaders at Pine Ridge.

Calls to Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele and Vice President William “Shorty” Brewer were not returned.

But Kay Red Hail is positive most elders are strongly opposed to allowing alcohol on the reservation.

“It’s not good,” she said. “I don’t even understand why they bring it up.”

When the Oglala Sioux Tribe legalized alcohol briefly in the 1970s, Red Hail remembers an increase in crime, people passed out on the street and panhandlers outside the reservation grocery stores that sold alcohol.

Alcohol is destructive to families, beliefs and cultural traditions, she said, and it would be more destructive if it were allowed on the reservation.

“It would be just bringing the whole problem and setting it right in the middle of us,” said Red Hail, who lives in Evergreen Housing north of Porcupine. “We don’t need that.”

Others disagree.

“I think we ought to legalize booze and put all of the money (from alcohol tax revenues) into treatment,” said Alma Brewer, a retired substance-abuse counselor. “The white people tried Prohibition. It didn’t work. … It’s a foolish law.”

Meanwhile, four stores in Whiteclay, Neb. – about two miles south of Pine Ridge village – sell about 4 million cans of beer each year, mostly to people from the Pine Ridge reservation. Crowds of people have marched from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay several times to protest alcohol sales to people from the reservation, which has one of the nation’s highest alcohol-related mortality rates.

“They contribute nothing back to our people,” said Poor Bear, who has led marches to Whiteclay. “The border towns are sure getting rich off us.”

If the tribe did legalize alcohol, Poor Bear said, tax revenues could be used to address alcohol addiction. “I feel the revenues from alcohol would really help us with the detox centers, treatment centers, help with the pain people have in turning to alcohol,” he said.

Brewer has seen the need for more treatment options. She spent 10 years as director of Flowering Tree, a residential substance-abuse treatment program for pregnant women and their children.

Currently, Anpetu Luta Otipi is the only treatment center on the reservation. There’s a waiting list for the 10 beds available in its inpatient program, which serves adolescents and adults.

Some tribal members are leery of legalizing alcohol for fear tribal leaders would spend alcohol revenues on projects other than alcohol treatment and education. Others believe banning alcohol keeps people from drinking.

“People are going to drink no matter what,” said Brewer, a former drinker who has been sober for 35 years. “They’re going to get their booze no matter what.”

Bootleggers have been around for years, Brewer said, recalling one man in the 1970s who had a drive-up window at his Pine Ridge home.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Blue-White Eyes agreed. “Whether or not they’re getting it from the bootlegger or from the liquor store is really not as important so much as what they do with it afterward. Either way, it’s a problem.”

Her program is federally funded through Indian Health Services. Along with inpatient treatment, it provides outpatient treatment and aftercare.

“There’s a continuum of care, and it could certainly be expanded,” she said, adding that there’s also a need to attract more Indian counselors. “You’d be able to do a lot more (with more funding). You could have centers in every (reservation) district.”

Red Hail is skeptical.

“It’s not going to solve the problem,” she said. “It’s just going to be trying to take care of aggravation of a problem that’s (now) sitting right in the midst of us.”

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe has passed an ordinance setting a $10,000 annual license fee for businesses that sell alcohol on the reservation. The money is meant to help with alcohol treatment and related issues, tribal Chairman Mike Jandreau said.

He thinks alcohol is a split issue on the reservation, with the segment that supports legal alcohol sales “very strongly in favor of it.”

“It’s a difficult issue for anyone,” Jandreau said. “Personally, I’ve lived with the results of what occurs with unrestricted alcohol, and I have found that it’s not a good thing.”

Many say alcohol use is an entry into other drug use. Banning alcohol on the reservation could make it harder for young people to get it, Jandreau said.

But as Blue-White Eyes points out, young people at Pine Ridge buy alcohol from bootleggers. “At least if they had it regulated, maybe they’d get carded,” she said. “The bootleggers don’t card.”

Poor Bear suggested what could be a compromise.

“We don’t have to really legalize it on the reservation,” he said. “We can also accumulate liquor licenses to buy bars off the reservation.”

That’s similar to what happened at Cedar Pass Lodge in Interior, which was managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe parks and recreation department for years. The tribe sold beer there under a lodge liquor license.

Tribal leaders voted against an exemption that would have allowed alcohol sales at Prairie Wind Casino.

As for a public vote on alcohol prohibition, Blue-White Eyes can’t predict the results.

“It’s an emotional issue here because of the cost that we pay for the people’s use of it,” she said.

She sees the reservation’s alcohol use as a socioeconomic problem based on 400 years of Indian history. That’s not long for people to adjust to the effects of it, she said.

Pine Ridge does have a strong abstinence movement – in fact, Blue-White Eyes said, Indian people have a higher abstinence rate than any other ethnic group.

“There’s no middle ground here,” she said. “There’s abstinence, and then there’s the using population.”

Whatever the result of a public vote, she said, “is what we’ll deal with.”

Poor Bear wouldn’t venture a guess either as to how a public vote would turn out.

“It would be a close vote, that’s all I could say,” Poor Bear said. “It would be interesting to find out.”

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