Tribe ponders alcohol sales at Pine Ridge

Published Monday February 16, 2004

Council will consider sending issue of legalizing alcohol sales to a vote, but many residents already are opposed.

WOUNDED KNEE — Ed Iron Cloud III doesn’t see his tribe surviving a future with legalized alcohol.

Fighting the legalization of alcohol on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a battle he is willing to fight because he says all the reservation really has is the future.

This week, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, meeting at Wounded Knee, is scheduled to decide whether to authorize a referendum that would ask residents to vote on allowing the sale of alcohol on the reservation.

If the council succeeds in putting the question to public vote, and residents approve, the tribe could ultimately lift one of the longest prohibitions on the sale of alcoholic beverages in South Dakota.

Iron Cloud says he hopes it does not. “Tourism is a big business on the reservation, but what is that compared to our children’s future?” he asked.

Iron Cloud, 39, became incensed over the idea of his representatives even considering the proposal.

On Feb. 2, motivated by what he termed “a lack of leadership,” Iron Cloud and others formed Ikce Wicasa Ksapa Ta Oklakiciye, the common man organization.

Membership swelled as more members of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation decided to fight the alcohol issue.

“This group of young and old Lakota men will focus to oppose the legalization of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation,” he said.

The organization will meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, Feb. 16, at Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic Church Hall in Kyle.

“Alcohol has been devastating to all of the people of the tribe,” Iron Cloud said.

He attributes birth defects, lifelong disabilities and imprisonment, to a great extent, to the abuse of alcohol.

“A lot of the reasons why our people are incarcerated is because of alcohol,” he said.

Iron Cloud briefly recalls, when alcohol was sold on the reservation, seeing the store that sold it. “I was pretty young. I don’t remember its impact,” he said.

Julie Wilcox of Wanblee also doesn’t want alcohol made legal. “We don’t want another Whiteclay here,” she said, referring to the Nebraska border town where millions of cans of beer are sold each year — most to Pine Ridge reservation residents.

Her daughter, Phyllis Wilcox, said the proposal might pass because of all of the young voters who support it.

“It’s scary,” Phyllis Wilcox said. “It’s the 18-year-old voters and those who are using, they don’t care about the future.”

Victor Swallow, 64, of Rapid City and formerly of Red Shirt Table, recalls when alcohol was illegal to sell to any adult Indians on or off the reservation. That changed in 1951, Swallow said.

Alcoholism didn’t affect his father’s or grandfather’s generations; they generally left it alone, he said. “But my generation was caught.”

Now, he said, alcoholism is part of tribal members’ failing health, accidents and crime. “It isn’t part of our culture, and we can’t handle it,” he said. “Let’s not make it convenient.”

The Rev. Robert Two Bulls, 69, recalls that alcohol was legal for a very short time. “It didn’t work. It never took off,” he said.

Two Bulls, of Red Shirt Table, opposes legalization and said every community on the reservation has been plagued by alcohol and bootlegging.

“The council overlooked the fact that alcohol runs rampant in our communities and is slowly killing us,” he said.

Two Bulls said the council should table the proposal for now and conduct an impact study “to see where it will lead us.”

He doesn’t believe legalized alcohol sales will solve the tribe’s financial problems and may even take them further into the red. “There are other ways to bring business onto the reservation,” Two Bulls said.

Iron Cloud also disputes the council representatives’ claims that alcohol would bring much-needed revenue to the reservation. If there is a business plan, he hasn’t seen it, he said.

“There’s no business plan in place, they’ve not planned past the vote. This revenue is all based on a hunch,” Iron Cloud said.

Swallow said the tribe isn’t known for its business sense. “Every tribal business has been a complete failure,” he said. “Based on their track record, who would ever want them to manage anything?”

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