Tribe may bid goodbye to dry

Published Thursday January 8, 2004
BY JOMAY STEEN
RAPID CITY JOURNAL

PINE RIDGE — A South Dakota tribe may gamble on a 100-proof solution.

As a possible way to keep Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s books balanced and create a thriving business sector, it may embrace the very vice that has for more than a century left its people addicted, disabled and dead.

Throughout the reservation’s 115-year history, it has been illegal for the most part to buy or sell alcohol within its boundaries.

That may change.

In the future, Prairie Winds Casino management could offer complimentary martinis and manhattans to its guests sitting at its slot machines. The tribe’s nine districts may open local municipal liquor stores, with tax revenue going toward alcohol treatment centers, youth programs and law enforcement.

Over the next two weeks, Oglala Sioux tribal members in the reservation’s nine districts will consider legalizing alcohol within its borders.

Tribal President John Steele will watch the unfolding proposal stir his people to either approve the proposal or reject it.

“It’s a very controversial, emotional issue. … Every family here has been affected by alcoholism,” Steele said.

At a late December 2003 meeting, a proposed ordinance was presented to the council. It would put to a reservationwide referendum vote whether to legalize alcohol.

The tribe tabled the ordinance until the week of Jan.19. According to officials, representatives could take the proposal into their districts and decide whether to support the ordinance or oppose it.

Steele said that five districts have met on the ordinance, but he doesn’t know the outcome of any of the meetings except the one in Wounded Knee. There, residents voted down the proposal.

“It’s going to be up to the local district meetings on how this turns out,” Steele said.

To ensure an informed vote, an Oglala Sioux tribal substance abuse program has coordinated advocates and opponents to discuss the issue at 3 p.m. today on KILI 88.3 FM Radio.

Advocates Eileen Janis and Leon Matthews and opponent Jeff Not Help Him will debate the issue, according to officials of Anpetu Luta Otipi, or To Live in the Red Day. The substance abuse program will offer information and a historical perspective on alcohol on the reservation.

Terryl Blue-White Eyes, Anpetu Luta Otipi director, said the organization wants tribal members to make an informed choice.

“We want them to make good decisions based on information rather than emotion,” she said.

KILI radio’s Tom Casey has set up a 60-minute call-in forum.

“We don’t have a scheduled program following it, so it could run longer,” he said.

Tight economic times on the reservation, a chance to develop economic resources and a large portion of sales allocated to alcohol and substance abuse treatment centers could drive voters to support the measure, yet opposition is huge, he said.

“It’s definitely an emotional issue,” Casey said.

It would not be the first time that the tribe has considered legalizing alcohol, he said.

In 1970, a similar referendum failed reservationwide but was approved in the Medicine Root and Pine Ridge districts. For one summer, the cities of those districts, Kyle and Pine Ridge, sold off-sale liquor, until a judge ruled that the ordinance had to be approved reservationwide and not simply in a singular district, Casey said.

Since then, there have been two referendums brought forward to legalize alcohol. The last was in the 1980s, Casey said.

Blue-White Eyes agreed that an ordinance allowing alcohol sales on the reservation was approved in 1969 and later repealed in 1970. “But we’re still doing research,” she said.

Blue-White Eyes sees the referendum as an opportunity for the 17,500 eligible tribal members to become involved in their community by voting.

“Of the total population of eligible voters, only 2,000 vote,” she said.

The organization’s attempt to educate the public about the proposal includes voter registration and going to district meetings to learn about the issues.

“They need to start to realize that they have a voice in their vote,” she said.

Eileen Janis says legalizing alcohol may not be the answer to her tribe’s problems, but it’s something that members have been forced to consider.

With fewer federal dollars, little local economic development and shrinking support from the current administration, Janis said this may be a way to keep the tribe above water.

Janis said that border-town liquor stores such as those in Whiteclay, Neb., may be a thing of the past if the tribe approves the proposal. Money would stay on the reservation, and current treatment centers and new programs would benefit directly from the money allocated by alcohol sales.

“Congress has forced us to consider everything we can do,” she said.

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